A brief confession; when I initially put together my Hooptober list, I put The Innkeepers as my choice for a Ti West film. I’d already seen X and felt no need for a revisit. I wanted to see if I was harsh in my initial viewing of that film. Then a theater near me offered a double feature of Pearl and X. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a double feature.
Ti West’s greatest skill, for better or worse, is his ability to mimic a particular style. His breakout film, House of the Devil, evokes the kind of fake “based on a true story” brand of 70s/80s horror mixed with Satanic panic. His last film X mimicked 70s low budget regional horror. With Pearl, West mines a 40s technicolor ideal. Every color here is very saturated. The emotions of the characters are very big. Using these elements in horror storytelling is rare, but Pearl uses its inspiration to tell a tale of ambition gone to seed. Mia Goth’s performance has a psychotic pluckiness, that gosh darn it, you want her to murder everyone in her way. All Pearl wants to do is be a dancer and get off her farm! There’s a lot of allusion’s to The Wizard of Oz, in the same way X evokes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Pearl may think she’s Dorothy but she rides her bike like the Wicked Witch. But where The Wizard of Oz ends with Dorothy realizing home is where she wants to be, Pearl at the end resigns herself to the farm and marriage that will be her prison. And this is all in a film that is funny and campy in a way horror films today rarely let themselves be. Really, this is the best Ti West has been in ages.
X on the other hand treads more familiar territory. West goes back to the well of 70s filmmaking he used making House of the Devil. When that film came out in 2009 with its naturalistic visuals and quiet atmosphere, it felt like a breath of fresh air in an era of torture porn and found footage. But there’s 13 years difference between that earlier film and this more recent one. A lot of filmmakers have referenced that era or used elements of those era. What West did ahead of the game in 2009, now feels old hat in 2022. X tries commenting on sex, fame, and aging but doesn’t say anything daring or new.
That said, for a film I haven’t rated highly, X still compels me. This is a gorgeous looking movie. It’s clear West adores this era as he employs all sorts of visual tricks. Characters get dwarfed by sun bleached landscapes. There’s jump cuts and split screens galore. It’s a surprise there’s no fake scratches on the screen.
Of the two films, Pearl is the more compelling. West though allows the two films to work in dialogue with each other. The pastoral scenes and the way Pearl dresses in Pearl evoke the porn being made in X. The decayed farm in X has already started to rot in Pearl. In the center of it all is Mia Goth’s performance as both Pearl and Maxine. While X would have benefited from an actual older actress in the role of Pearl, seeing Goth play two characters at vastly different ages has its pleasures. There’s a fun house mirror quality seeing Maxine’s hard edge determination reflected in the warped yearning of the much older Pearl. When we see a younger Pearl, she has the determination but her naïveté is her undoing. She expects someone to whisk her away to the life she wants. Maxine knows and will do anything to have that life. When it comes down to which one will get off that farm, it’s no surprise Maxine does.
A third film titled MaXXXine is to be released next year. I’m not sure what it will add to this story. Ti West will play around in 80s filmmaking styles (maybe he’ll go full De Palma?) while Mia Goth add some new wrinkle to Maxine’s story. This seems like the complete story of two women though. Two women in different time periods whose lives are determined by what they do on this farm. For Maxine, it’s 24 hours. For Pearl, it’s a lifetime