Spoiler alert: The entire plot of “Pearl” and “X” will be discussed in this article.
Who knew a church dance tryout would result in one of the year’s strongest film monologues?
That’s the case with “Pearl,” Ti West’s twisty, hallucinatory ode to Technicolor-era film. It’s the prequel to this year’s grimy porn slasher “X,” in which Mia Goth played an aspiring XXX actress as well as a makeup-laden, nearly-unrecognizable elderly woman named Pearl who ended up killing most of the film crew staying on her farm. In the latest film, Goth takes on a third role of Pearl as a young woman.
This serial killer origin story finds Pearl trapped on her family farm in 1918, with her husband Howard a world away from Texas while fighting in the war, leaving her to keep up the chores for her strict German immigrant mother and invalid father. Dreaming of a life dancing on the silver screen, she soon turns homicidal after being scolded by her mother, rebuffed by her projectionist lover and “mercy killing” her father, who would just be dead weight on her journey to film stardom.
Pearl is invited to a dance audition at church by her sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) and, despite giving a bombastic performance, is dismissed by the judges because they’re looking for a fresh-faced blonde dancer. In an effort to calm a distraught Pearl, Mitsy takes her home and invites her to practice what she would say to Howard in order to make her feel better, launching one of the best scenes of 2022, including a nine-minute monologue from Goth which results in an acting masterclass.
“I hate you so much for leaving me here, sometimes I hope you die,” begins Pearl sharply, lost in the fantasy of speaking to her soldier husband. “I’m sorry, I feel awful admitting that, but it’s the truth.” The admission stings the audience more than Pearl’s axe blows earlier in the film, ringing with the unspoken honesty of a woman facing loneliness and depression while her husband is across the world, his fate unknown.
“I wish things could just go back to the way they were before, but I don’t see how they could, not after the things I’ve done,” she continues to an increasingly unsettled Mitsy.
Pearl goes on, unguarded and candid about her miscarriage (“I never wanted to be a mother. I loathed the feeling of it growing inside of me, it felt like sickness…I was so relieved when it died”), infidelity and murderous rages.
With the camera locked on her face in closeup, audiences are constantly thinking of Mitsy on the other side of the table, forced to maintain a straight face while hearing these taboo declarations. As Pearl wraps, lamenting that she’ll probably be stuck on the farm forever, she delivers her fractured mission statement: “All I really want is to be loved. I’m having such a hard time without it lately.” As Pearl bows her head, exhausted and silent, Mitsy finds her opportunity to leave the room, but is trapped in one last conversation, as the other shoe drops and Pearl congratulates her sister-in-law on getting the dance part.
Although Mitsy denies it, the scene ratchets drama up further as Pearl urges her blonde cousin to admit her success and even says “I’m happy for you.” Goth diffuses the tension, seemingly coming down to earth to find frustration in the situation but not blame her family. But after considering it, Pearl grits her teeth and mutters, “You always get what you want,” and it’s clear that poor Mitsy won’t ever make it to the stage.
The scene is reminiscent of the tense opening of Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film “Inglourious Basterds,” in which Nazi Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) has a long discussion with farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Ménochet), during which both parties — and the audience — become increasingly certain there is a Jewish family hidden in the floorboards of the house, and things will not end peacefully. That scene ended up being one of the film’s most memorable, and kickstarted the buzz for Waltz’s first Academy Award.
During the beginning of her monologue, Pearl laments, “The truth is, I’m not really a good person.” Although it’s easy to pigeonhole the axe-wielding would-be movie star that way, the reality is much more muddied. She’s a broken person, a loving person, a lonely person at a time in America’s history where women had to be the supportive rocks back home. Goth plays a misbehaving woman out of time, sanding away the edges of her personality, hopes and desires.
It’s easy to think Pearl might find a kindred spirit in the titular heroine of the Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” In that landmark feminist work, Jeanne lives out mundane days doing chores and making ends meet through dissociative sex work, leading to a tragic ending where an unexpected climax leads to her murdering a john. The blend of the mundane, domestic and erotic all pulsing to a tragic end illuminates both works.
The startling final scene of “Pearl” — Howard comes home to a dinner table filled with Pearl’s victims, his wife eager to greet him — ends with a minutes-long unbroken shot of Goth smiling ear-to-ear, every muscle in her face stretched to exaggeration, tears breaking occasionally as her eyes stare down the barrel of the camera. It’s a visual that matches the inevitable fate of Pearl in the decades before “X”: trapped in the Technicolor nightmare of her Texas farm, contorting a grin to distract from the tears. (Another parallel with “Jeanne Dielman”: The seven-minute unbroken take of Jeanne after she stabs her john, which ends the film.)
Despite raves among fans and even a co-sign from Martin Scorsese (“I was enthralled, then disturbed, then so unsettled that I had trouble getting to sleep. But I couldn’t stop watching.”), “Pearl” seems destined to be overlooked as a serious acting showcase. Horror is perennially ignored when it comes to awards attention. Some of the most indelible performances of the last decade have been slighted, simply because of genre: Florence Pugh in “Midsommar,” Lupita Nyong’o in “Us,” Toni Collette in “Hereditary,” Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Witch.”
Yet Goth flexes every muscle during the film, nailing moments both absurd and sincere. For every shattering monologue there’s a comedic beat around the corner, or simply a startling visual of Pearl skipping along wielding a bloody axe. And while acting categories will inevitably be filled with tear-jerking performances about the pain of growing up or the grief of losing a family member, how many roles call on the lead to accidentally get too high and dry-hump a scarecrow to orgasm? That’s a range Oscar voters should get behind.