It would be too precious to say of Pearl that it’s about something as ubiquitous as the fear of aging, and too clean to say it’s about something as benign as ambition. Because Pearl is anything but common, and is festering more than it is clean. Chronicling the coming of age of the horrifyingly sympathetic serial killer of Ti West’s delightful playground of a gore-fest X, Pearl is uninhibited, uncouth, and gross, a jaw-droppingly intimate portrait of an unabashedly unhinged but still human madwoman. A film that closes in like a vise grip on Mia Goth and lets her romp about such an austere and American field as farmland, Pearl and watches in wonder as Goth’s Pearl defiles it. Thereby, it marks Goth as the singular contemporary queen of camp and horror, campy horror.
Pearl makes a feast of all that we hate a woman to be (horny, hungry, tired, angry, sad, loud, dirty, confident – the list could go on) and lets Goth take her time as she devours it. Ultimately, this allows her to showcase herself as an actress in possession of such a remarkably honed yet unruly skill, honed in its unruliness, that the only forces she can be compared to are those campy, larger-than-life actresses who excavated the type for mainstream audiences in the last century.
Goth joins West in crafting the screenplay for Pearl. The film begins during WWI, as the Spanish flu rages on. Pearl, whose husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) is off fighting in the war, lives with her mother Ruth (Tandi Wright), a stalwart German matriarch, and her infirm father (Matthew Sunderland), who is confined to a wheelchair after catching the flu. Ruth, harboring anger and disdain for her lot in life, is cold and dry, deeply principled in that German way, and believes in making the most of what a person has received. As she diligently cares for her impotent husband, farms, and prepares food, she works to keep the day-dreaming Pearl in check, ordering the girl around the farm, reminding her to change the ill and effete one-time patriarch. Pearl, meanwhile, is convinced she is destined for something far more glamorous and illustrious than a life on a dusty farm milking cows and washing her father. The story follows the mother and daughter as they butt heads about what it means to live a good life — whether, as Ruth says, one must keep one’s head down and work, or whether it is as Pearl believes, that one must follow their dream.
Indeed, on the face of it, this plot seems pedestrian, a fairly common (though seldom represented on screen) story of women toiling and teasing meaning from a rough life on the American countryside in the early twentieth century. But there’s something deeply the matter with Pearl, and also something violent simmering beneath Ruth’s unemotive surface. Even as the film begins with images of an idyllic Americana — an overalls-clad Pearl, looking a shade of Judy Garland in Summer Stock (1950) jumps up on bales of hay and performs a dance for her cows and goats — this familiar sun-baked scene of hard-working women keeping their homes in order as the men fight in a war is punctured swiftly by Ruth’s overbearing and patronizing gaze. Even before any gore splatters across the scene, we get a sense that these two women, the mother and daughter, would literally kill each other if they could, from the way Ruth circles Pearl like a vulture and the way that Pearl maintains none of the demeanor or silence we have learned to expect of women from this era.
Goth’s Pearl is explosive; every one of her moods, emotions, or thoughts is apparent either in her physicality or is confidently voiced by her. There is a preternatural naïveté commingled with sexual hunger that runs through Pearl, evident to and abhorred by Ruth, who evidently is strangely jealous of Pearl, who washes her father (Ruth’s husband) and bathes before him naked. It’s this explosiveness and hunger and fearlessness in Pearl that mark her as different from the other women around her, from the status quo, qualities that hint toward the budding insanity within her, an insanity that simmers throughout the film, erupting in bursts until finally exploding and raging in X.
It’s an insanity that could be inherited from Ruth, the film suggests, and is one that is so beguiling for how subtle it initially is, and then how delicately and gradually it spirals out of Pearl throughout the movie — in the form of a fearlessness about her own body, uncaring, unaware of whether she is being rude (doing what a woman ought not to do) or of being gross. Pearl’s dissatisfaction with married life on a farm gestures toward madness. Ruth is the reductio ad absurdum of the contemporary women’s moral compass, one whose inherent absurdity and double standards are revealed through Ruth’s own insanity incurred in working to maintain the status quo. According to Ruth, a woman ought to be complacent and work despite hating her lot. But Pearl doesn’t listen; she hates her mother’s life loudly and is not shy about her sentiment — this hatred of the status quo always earns a woman the label of insanity, and in Pearl, the label is literalized. If such a woman is to be insane, then let her be horrifically so, West and Goth seem to say here.
Pearl goes for long bike rides into town, spends hours in the movie theater, drinks her father’s morphine, and wears masculine clothing. One of the most stunning depictions of Pearl’s uninhibitedness is during her journey back home after one of her rides into town to get her father’s medicine. She comes across a scarecrow mounted atop a tall cross in the midst of a cornfield. She immediately dismounts the scarecrow and dances with him, leading all the way despite the fact that the scarecrow is masculine-presenting, wearing a top hat. Pearl screams “I’m married” at him when the scarecrow’s face morphs into the handsome projectionist’s (David Corenswet) face, the man she met at the movie theater earlier; it’s an almost reflexive scream, equally meant for the flirtatious projectionist as it is for herself, to keep herself in line. But before we, as the audience, even have the time to finish formulating the thought that Pearl might do the right thing, that she will do what other women around her might do, walk away from the scarecrow (and by extension the projectionist) forever and back to her mother, before we have enough time to form the thought that perhaps Pearl, though she is a bit weird, will still do the sane thing — before we think this, Pearl throws the scarecrow to the ground and mounts him, rubbing up against his groin until she reaches orgasm, loudly.
When Pearl walks, she walks with a strong and wide gait, her arms swinging, taking up space. When she cries, she cries loudly and her big, globule-like tears run violently down her face and mix with the snot rushing from her nose. She wipes her nose on her arm, not a handkerchief. When she feels the projectionist is being cold toward her, she doesn’t pace within her uncertainty, she brings up her fears about his waning affection for her immediately, screaming at the projectionist, asking him why he’s so suddenly turned cold. It’s an intuitive way of being that Pearl has about her, doing in the moment what feels right to her, something women have always been taught not to do, and for this uninhibitedness she is certainly insane.
Indeed, these aren’t perhaps the most insane things a woman could do, but in the context of the film, in early-twentieth-century America, West and Goth posit that Pearl is a veritable madwoman even if we ignore the fact that she rejoices in killing small animals, that she seriously toys with the idea of killing her father so she might be free from having to be his caretaker. Women ought not to complain, but Goth’s Pearl complains and cries and wants to follow her irrational dreams. She bikes standing up, she runs, she screams, she cries, she dances, she kills, and she leaves the dead where they are to rot and fester with larvae; like the madwoman in familiar horror and exploitation films from the twentieth century, Pearl recognizes her goals and does everything a woman ought not to do to attain them.
Near the end of the film Pearl offers us a monologue, talking through her strangeness, explaining her insanity to her sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro). The camera closes in on Goth’s face and is unwavering in its gaze, but so too is Goth. She talks and talks and talks in perhaps the best monologue we have been given on screen this year, explaining her boredom with being a wife, with caring for her family, with the farm, her dreams of escape that she thought Howard would help her to fulfill. Peal has just lost a talent show that would have been her last ticket out of the dusty farm, out of her family. And this failure has Pearl reconsidering her dreams, thinking maybe her mother was right all along. As Pearl talks, her nose and tears run incessantly and she is too passionate to think about wiping her face. She talks so much, expresses every iota of her feelings, and when she stops talking she feels better. It’s the kind of passionate talk that women are discouraged to this day from partaking in — female characters so seldom get monologues, because women shouldn’t talk too much, women shouldn’t monopolize a conversation, shouldn’t bore with their own feelings. But Pearl is insane and she doesn’t care what you want.
Pearl’s cinematography (by Eliot Rockett), with its yellowed and bright aesthetic harkening back to ‘50s technicolor musicals, is perhaps what will lure many into theaters, but perhaps just as many will be repulsed by Pearl herself. She has an inherent grossness she doesn’t care to clear away, that her German mother would abhor. Perhaps many might laugh at Pearl, at Pearl’s campiness, the character’s outrageous behavior and mannerisms, perhaps many will find Pearl’s fear of having lost out on the chance to be somebody famous to be familiar, the only point of her relatability — her ambition, her desire to accomplish something before the time runs out.
But for me, it’s Pearl’s insanity that I would like to celebrate, and her unabashed expression of her insanity. Not only is she insane, she is unafraid of being insane, and for this reason, with Pearl, West and Goth have bestowed upon us one of the most captivating heroines since Joan Crawford and Bette Davis roared and wept across the silver scream, loudly and unabashedly succumbing to insanity, taking up space and leaving a mark. Goth as Pearl, captivating as she does here the camera’s singular attention with every quiver of a muscle in her face, boisterously owning every scene she is in, screaming at men and women alike, will leave an indelible mark as one of the best actresses working today.