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Pearl (2022): Love in the Time of the 1918 Flu

Ti West’s Pearl serves as a prequel to his X film’s memorable villain, the older, sexually-starved Pearl who wreaks havoc on the young bodies that had the audacity to engage in sexual relations on her property. Gabe appreciates the aesthetics of the film and Ti West's dedication to the theme. Kat dives into the troubled mind of young Pearl and how the complicated stew of terrible situations could influence her decisions. Having a husband away at war, taking care of family, isolating due to a pandemic, and living in the early 1900s?! No wonder Pearl is taut with tension and troublesome thoughts.

Sources in this Episode: COVID has officially won as the most deadly disease in American History The effects of social deprivation on adolescent development and mental health Reviews: ‘Pearl’ Review: A Farmer’s Daughter Moves Up the Food Chain - The New York Times Pearl review: a slasher prequel that makes the original even better - The Verge Pearl review: a star is born (and is very, very bloody) | Digital Trends Pearl review: Mia Goth melts down as a serial killer in the making | ‘Pearl’ Film Review: Stunning Prequel Makes ‘X’ Even Better Than It Already Was Pearl Review: Wild A24 Horror Improves on Ti West's X | Den of Geek ‘Pearl’ Review: Grainy, Gory, and Goth | Arts | The Harvard Crimson Pearl review: Mia Goth is breathtaking in a flawed horror prequel - Polygon


Media from this week's episode:

Pearl (2022)

In 1918, a young woman on the brink of madness pursues stardom in a desperate attempt to escape the drudgery, isolation and lovelessness of life on her parents' farm.

Director Ti West

Writers Ti West & Mia Goth


Pearl (2022): Bad Love in Technicolor by Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Ti West’s Pearl serves as a prequel to his X film’s memorable villain, the older, sexually-starved Pearl who wreaks havoc on the young bodies that had the audacity to engage in relations on her property. The prequel provides us with a glimpse into Pearl’s complicated past and a slight defense for her actions. The film follows Pearl, in her youth, as she fights against the life the world has forced upon her, one of idle hands and quiet mouths. She lives on a farm with her mother and father, the latter of which has become quite ill after an encounter with 1918’s own pandemic. Because of this, the care for her father, the maintenance of their home and their well being falls on the two women. Despite this heavy existence of farm chores and carework, Pearl’s world is lit in technicolor. Because Pearl is going to be a star. I appreciate Ti West’s dedication to the genre and the cinematic influences of the film’s time period. With X, he stuck to a Texas Chain Saw Massacre aesthetic against the backdrop of the sex industry of the 70s. An antithesis to the horror genres obsession with murdering sexually charged youths. With Pearl, the saturated colors carefully cover the grimy truth of Pearl’s life and actions. It inspires a twisted version of The Wizard of Oz, only this time Dorothy doesn’t accidentally drop a house or bucket of water on the villain, instead she stabs them with a pitchfork to the chest or takes an axe to their head.

When we first meet her, she is found spinning in her room, holding a beautiful red dress to her body and fantasizing about the stage. After being ordered to put that away and tend to her chores, Pearl, now dressed in overalls and boots, continues her performance. This time, to an audience of farm animals. We get a taste of Pearl’s sinister nature when she murders one of the family’s ducks for intruding on her performance.

Later, Pearl gets an opportunity to head to the “big city” to pick up her father’s medication. Her mother warns her about the pandemic, telling her to wear a mask. While in town, we see the world Pearl desperately wants to be a part of. She steals away into a theatre, watching the dancers and dreaming of a day when she’ll be that star. She has a fateful interaction with the theater’s projections who flirts with her, offering her a glimpse behind the scenes. She asserts that she’s married. She’s a good girl before heading home. We get to see more of that tainted repression Pearl suffers from when she has an intimate and loud moment with a scarecrow. Having a husband away at war, taking care of family, isolating due to a pandemic, and living in the early 1900s?! No wonder Pearl is taut with tension and troublesome thoughts. As the story progresses we see just how isolated Pearl is because of her mother. After she gives in to those desires, coupling with the hot projectionist she learns of a possibility, the chance at an escape. He is a self-proclaimed bohemian, living a life for himself only (a luxury only a white man in 1918 could have) and he indulges her with kisses and the first pornographic films.

After this interaction, Pearl’s yearning for an escape and for freedom grows stronger. Only now, Pearl’s intruding thoughts start to leak out and take shape in the real world. She fears something is wrong with her and in response to the fear of being found out, she lashes out first.

We watch as Pearl seeks that freedom wherever she can get it, whether it be dancing alone in her room, humping a scarecrow in the corn field, or cavorting with the handsome projectionist. Her desperate spiral is intense, leaving a path of blood and pain in her wake. At the heart of the film though, what truly elevates it, is Mia Goth’s performance. As Pearl performs in front of a panel of judges, in hopes of becoming a professional dancer, so convinced she’s going to win she prematurely burns bridges (and her mother) anticipating her escape. She is the very spirit of Judy Garland. Only, she doesn’t get the role. The news is so at odds with Pearl’s interpretation of the world and her skills that she lets those quiet parts out. She’s a star. This is the smoke of the volcano, a warning before her final explosion.

Late in a truly harrowing, heartbreaking and awe-inspiring scene, Pearl sits in front of her sister-in-law, the sweet Mitsy. Mitsy explains that of course she could tell her anything, she is a safe source, they are family. Only, she doesn’t know who Pearl really is and when Pearl finally gets an opportunity to pour out all those inner fears, it doesn’t stop. Mia Goth gives us one long shot of rambling fears and frustrations. Pearl unloads on the unfairness of her life, a complaint of the life she deserved but Mitsy got instead. She confesses and reasons and worries. Her spiral is controlled and affirmative. The world has been unfair to Pearl and she’s been dealt bad hand after bad hand, but she’s no victim. Something is wrong with Pearl. And she knows it. Yet, she demands to be loved in spite of it. She’s too far gone and what we’re left with is a Pearl making the most of a bad situation, ready to play house for her returning husband the way she’s been “playing” good girl her whole life.

Pearl is a story of repression in an unfair, sexist world. Pearl’s life was one of hushed desire. Caring for her father and enduring her mother’s constant criticism, the demands to act appropriately. As a married woman should. It’s enough to make anyone snap. This prequel gives us some much-needed context for older Pearl’s murderous actions in X. Pearl is seeing these young folx enjoying their bodies, being bold and free in a way that she never could be. They taunt her with their youth and opportunity. They had defended themselves, explaining that their bodies are to do with whatever they please. That was never the case for Pearl, only having glimpsed a small breath of sexual freedom in the french pornographic films the projectionist showed her. And here they are living her life and dreams. I think what's even more important is that even though the film Pearl gives us context it is not an excuse for Pearl’s behavior. The events in the film didn’t inspire her to be the killer in X but was instead give us a coming-of-age tale with a killer twist, releasing something sinister that was in her all the time. Because just as Pearl fears, something is wrong with her.


In Pearl's Defense, on Ti West's film by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Pearl was an entire hilarious time filled with murder, the plague, and other antics. It really highlights what it was like to be a woman in the early 1900s, and how the Plague of 1918, and World War 1 impacted the social relationships of women living in rural communities. The film shows us a woman named Pearl whose only real friends for the majority of her life are farm animals. Pearl’s only real purpose according to her family is to live on this farm the rest of her life, take care of her father, and not have dreams or aspirations. What was really fun about watching and researching for this episode is that Pearl is living through her own panini press mess of a pandemic at a pivotal point in her life. Which was relatable up until the brutal murders. What I’ll be covering in my section is some of the historical context of Pearl’s lived experiences.

Pearl grew up in the early 1900s, and the film is centered around the 1918’s, just a few years before the great depression. For some context, 1918 is also when the Influenza pandemic was in full swing, and as of 2018 was the most severe pandemic of recent history, that was until COVID-19. COVID has officially won as the most deadly disease in American History. In 1918, rural communities were especially impacted by the H1N1 with 9 in 10 people dying because of lack of exposure to previous influenza strains. The necessity for isolation in rural communities was quite literally life or death. The statistics were even more damning if you were over the age of 30. Infection Control Today’s article In 1918 Flu Pandemic, Mortality in Urban and Isolated Rural Areas Varied said

“Analyses for isolated communities, such as in Labrador, Canada, and Alaska, USA, showed that mortality for all adults over 30 years was very high, and up to 90 percent to 100 percent.” The mother’s hesitation and rage around Peal traveling into town and doing more than just getting medicine is given more context, as in journeying outside of the planned excursion puts their lives in jeopardy.

The isolation that Pearl experiences in her youth is also a product of the time period as well as the geographical location she grew up in. Texas, where the film is staged, additionally had pretty loose rules surrounding public schooling, and did not have laws mandating attendance until 1915. With that in mind it’s reasonable to assume Pearl did not get much socialization as a child outside of the farm and her parents. This impacted her ability to develop connections with her peers her age, as well as likely impacted her social relationships with others. Extended isolation during early adolescence is known to cause depression, anxiety, high stress and are 30% more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD. The impact of solitude on early adolescence can also impact self-confidence, and can be linked to hypervigilance of social threats and lack of trust towards others. The trust impact of this is highly dependent upon the home life situation, meaning adolescents who are in positive home situations are likely to maintain resilience in isolation, and adolescents living in toxic or abusive situations will experience more mental trauma. In comparing this to Pearl’s upbringing, and the coldness of her mother towards her, it is likely that Pearl fell into the latter category. Based on Pearl’s behaviors in the film, it seems that hypervigilance and lack of trust were represented in her actions. This is shown in her responses to others and interpreting minor facial and tonal changes as threatening.

The impact of isolation on adolescent minds in instances where parental intervention was abusive, neglectful, or absent entirely is more severe. In research conducted on rats, social isolation was heavily impactful when there was an absence of maternal care, and had effects that extended beyond just cortisol release and stress. Social isolation deprived crucial stimuli for the maintenance of neurobiological mechanisms and development. In an article on the National Library for Medicine titled The effects of social deprivation on adolescent development and mental health they outlined that “Chronically isolated adolescent rodents (isolated throughout the whole adolescent period) have shown abnormal behaviours such as hyper-reactivity to stressful situations45 and increased aggression.46 Isolation-induced changes additionally occur for cognitive processes, such as learning and attention, and result in diminished performance on tasks that involve these processes. Particularly, isolation during adolescence results in cognitive flexibility deficits that impair reward learning,47 reversal learning,48 and attention shifting.49With this research in mind, Pearl’s over the top reactions to conflict have a little more context. Her rage over feelings of abandonment and rejection make a bit more sense. The want for escape from those feelings are her motivation the entire film, and is what she uses to justify her horrific choices. The justification is the problem, because in justifying why, she removes any motivation for getting better. It becomes the fault of someone else, and therefore out of her control.

Pearl as a person exhibits symptoms of neglect and emotional abuse. The isolation she experiences is exacerbated by the lack of connection she has with her mother. In all instances shown on screen with her mother, Pearl’s mother was emotionally closed off, and critical. Most exchanges are done with a harsh tone, and almost entirely focused on Pearl’s flaws, mistakes and ways in which she is failing her family. There is little kindness or love shown, and no attempts to meet Pearl where she is at emotionally. This is because the love given by Pearl’s mother is conditional, and those conditions in her eyes have not been met. This emotional neglect has instilled a deep sense of insecurity in Pearl, and created an inescapable feeling that something is wrong with her. The kicker here is that she is right, something is wrong with her, and without a stable, safe emotional outlet for her rage, and without a peer group to bounce moral questions of right and wrong off of, she makes horrific choices. All without any consequences to accountability, giving her no reason to act differently. This is not to villainize the mother entirely, as it is clear she has her own trauma to contend with, in that she has immigrated to the US as a necessity fleeing war. As a woman during this time period she is entirely dependent upon her husband, and because of circumstances outside her control, is now isolated herself in a new country where she must find a way for her entire family to survive. That is a lot of pressure, and trauma that she never really unpacks or contends with because there is simply not time, nor resources, nor anyone who cares. The world is just as unforgiving as Pearl’s pitch fork and ax. We get a glimpse into that reality in the monologue that Pearl delivers later in the film, which is really telling and shows a surprising amount of self awareness that is swiftly discarded with more murders.

The last piece of the film I'll discuss is Pearl’s use of marriage and men as a pathway for escape from her isolation. For additional context to really solidify that Pearl had no other options, the film is positioned in 1918. To de-romanticize Pearl’s marriage right from the start, Pearl is stated to be about 16 years old in the film. With that understanding, it is reasonable to assume that Pearl’s marriage was decided by her parents, not by her, and was likely used as a way to support them financially as Howard was from a higher economic class. The context of her marriage as a pathway of escape from social isolation, as well as a pathway to a higher economic status also makes sense for the time period. Marriage was the only method women had to escape toxic family situations, as well as the only method to move up financially from a class standpoint. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a woman could access a line of credit independently without a man to cosign her application. Women could not have bank accounts until 1960 in the United States. This was Pearl’s ONLY method of escaping spending her entire life on this farm, and that was taken from her by Howard preferring “farm life” to his financially well-off upbringing. Very classic rich white man romanticizing poverty. Looping back to Pearl’s age, the average age of marriage in 1918 was 20 years old for women, but in the south it was oftentimes possible to marry younger. The age of consent was not raised to 16 until 1918. The timeline we’re given in the film positions us in 1918, with Pearl being married since her husband went to war. As World War 1 started in 1914, it’s possible at this point in the film, Pearl had already been married for 4 years. According to a google search X takes place in 1979, and Pearl is roughly sixteen in the Pearl movie, it can be inferred that her character is around 77 years old in X. If she is 16 in the film, then it could be presumed that she married Howard at the age of 12 if he was sent to war at the very beginning... which is undeniably an entire problem. She was a child who was married off to some man (the trauma with that speaks for itself), and she rationalized that trauma as being worth it if she could at least escape the farm. When that reality was pulled from her, she desperately searched for other methods of escape… Her erratic behavior and lack of understanding of the permanence of her actions make a lot more sense when understanding that she is a literal child in the film. The frontal lobe of the human brain that controls decision-making, impulse control, emotional response and consequential thinking making is not fully formed until a human’s early to mid 20s. Add in the developmental trauma and neglect Pearl has experienced in her entire life, it is not shocking that she struggles to understand the impact of her actions.

All that is to say, I am not as shocked by the Pearl we see in this film after getting this context. It makes a lot more sense, that she would not be okay given the life she had experienced. Like anything else, just because I understand, doesn't mean I accept. Murder is bad. She is a murderer. Is it entirely her fault? No. Does that fact make any of those people any less murdered? Also No. So she’s still an entire problem, and she needed to be held accountable. The problem is, that never happens, there are never consequences for those actions, nor are they ever talked about between her and Howard. They just continue on living this farm life that she never wanted and she continues to murder, well into her old age.


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