‘X’ Marks the Spot

Mia Goth stars in director Ti West’s stylish slasher-flick prequel

Mia Goth is Pearl, a homicidal maniac in the making.

Pearl
Starring Mia Goth, David Corenswet & Tandi Wright
Directed by Ti West
Rated R

In theaters Friday, Sept. 16

Wondering how an innocent farmer’s daughter becomes a raging homicidal maniac? Well, then, Pearl’s your girl.

Director Ti West’s carnage-packed, candy-colored creepshow is a prequel to X, his horror hit from earlier this year, which featured the character in an advanced age in the late 1970s, lusting for her youth and lost sexuality while preying on an amateur film crew secretly making a dirty movie out behind her barn. Former model-turned-actress Mia Goth played double roles in X, and she now returns as the younger Pearl.

For anyone who saw X (and that’s probably not a lot of you), Pearl fills in the early years and reveals the twisted roots of the young woman who’ll eventually become lethally handy with an axe and a pitchfork. (And a pet alligator.) If you didn’t see X, well, just sit back and watch the lurid nightmare unfold.

Set in 1918, it’s a slasher-flick homage to lavish, big-screen Technicolor spectacles of yesteryear, with overt winks to The Wizard of Oz, rah-rah musicals, war movies and classic Hitchcock. There’s even a nod to the modern world, as characters mask up a la COVID to prevent the spread of the Spanish flu, fearful of bringing the invisible invader into their homes.

Pearl is a war bride whose husband is away fighting “over there,” while she stays at home with her unyielding, German-immigrant mother (Tandi Wright) and invalid, wheelchair-bound father (Matthew Sunderland). Something’s not quite right with Pearl, and she knows it. “I’m worried there may be something really wrong with me,” she tells her sunny sister-in-law, Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro). “I’m not a good person.”

A cooked pig crawling with maggots becomes a metaphor for the rot that eventually eats away the “good,” and the normal, inside of Pearl.

So, what turns her into a psycho? Maybe it’s being cooped up and confined, like the cow and the goat in their pens, inside a quarantined house with an overbearing mother and an unresponsive father. Maybe it’s because she feels no one ever hears her prayers, and the religious zealotry she’s been force-fed tastes bitter and empty. Maybe it’s her conflicted, confused feelings of sexual repression, and her marriage to a husband she knows she may never see again. Perhaps it’s her boiling-over frustration at being stuck in the middle of an American nowhere (actually, the movie was filmed in New Zealand), with dashed hopes of ever getting out and experiencing the bigger world, in Hollywood or perhaps even Paris.

And then there’s the obsessive tug of Pearl’s dreams, her fantasy of becoming a “follies” girl like the ones in the newsreels she sees at the local picture show. At an audition for a touring dancing troupe, she steps onstage, onto the “X” that’s been taped on the floor to show her where to stand—a mark that sets her identity, secures her place in the world, and seals her destiny of destruction. (It also shows that the anxieties—and crushed hopes—of contestants on contemporary TV talent completions, like The X Factor, America’s Got Talent or American Idol, certainly aren’t anything new. But will any of those wannabe’s become psychos? Guess we’ll have to wait and see.)

A bohemian movie projectionist takes Pearl for a ride.

David Corenswet plays the dashing movie-theater projectionist who flatters Pearl, telling her she can be anything she wants to be, go anywhere she wants to go. He also introduces her to his bed, and to pornography, stirring the tangled, matted mess of psychological, pathological madness in her head. (And suggesting that overheated fantasies of being up on the silver screen or the stage, becoming famous, can really mess up impressionable young minds.) When Pearl stops her bicycle to dry-hump a straw man in a cornfield, it’s a crazily carnal twist on Dorothy’s meeting with the scarecrow en route to Oz. Only there’s no Yellow Brick Road on Pearl’s highway to hell.

Goth is a British actress who had a notable supporting role in Emma (2020)—and got her movie start in the notorious two-part Nymphomaniac (2013), an erotic opus about promiscuous sexuality. In a bravura, gutsy performance, she pulls off the trick of making us feel both sympathy and revulsion for Pearl, whose severe emotional damage creates monstrously scary impulses. Is she crazy? Oh, yeah. Is she unhinged enough to lash out at anyone, or anything, that gets in the way of her dreams? For sure. Even farm animals—and prenatal alligators—aren’t safe.

Pearl shows her ailing father her swamp pet…at dangerously close range.

Yes, it’s violent. It’s bloody. It’s meant to be disturbing. But this super-stylized shocker has a wild, freakishly compelling story—about how mental illness and instability can turn almost anyone into a monster, in 1918 or today. And it’s all packaged with a stylish cinematic flourish and flair, and a splatter-y caution that echoes ancient folktales, about children longing to “leave the farm” for the big city.     

“Seems there’s something missing in me that the rest of the world has,” Pearl says at one point. “All I really wanted is to be loved.”

Something may be missing for Pearl, but Goth has certainly found it, in a horror franchise that now plans its third chapter, MaXXXine, about her character from X as the sole survivor of Pearl’s rampage in that film. (Stay through the credits to see the teaser.)

In her case, “X” indeed marks the spot.

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