Mia Goth Totally Kills It In Ti West’s ‘X’ Origin Story [Venice]

Dec 24, 2022

The greatest strength of Ti West’s “X,” the very A24 vibes ‘n all sex-slasher which premiered to tepid acclaim at South By Southwest earlier this year, was never its reverence for “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” nor its lurid ‘70s grit and grain, nor its abundance of pornstaches. No, no: a double-dipping Mia Goth was the lynchpin, be it caked in prosthetics as the melting, murderous octogenarian Pearl or starlet-in-the-making (with an aptly porn-y name) Max Minx. “Pearl” dives into the off-piste origin story of the aging murderess, Goth, returning to the part sans old biddy makeup. It’s 1918, the First World War is trundling to a close, and the Spanish Flu has cast a deathly shadow across the American landscape, from the skirting farms and homesteads to the small town picture houses in between.
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Where West wrung out all he could from a ‘70s cult Aesthetic in “X,” tugging off to the likes of Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter, his spin-off shifts to Hollywood’s Golden Age, bringing with it an air of Douglas Sirk, “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Pearl, you see, is a star waiting to be born, a Bardot in the making, a Garland or a Crawford biding her time in the wings: she’d rather be dancing for the new moving pictures, but alas she’s relegated to cleaning up cow shit and feeding the lambs on the Texas family farmstead (the same as where she’d come to massacre a bunch of twenty-somethings in “X”), lorded over by her Disney villain of a mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright). These are the end times as far as anyone can tell, Pearl’s dad catatonic after a fearsome bout with the new lurgy, the townsfolk variously isolating in their homes and hidden under face cloths — it’s no place for dreams and aspirations. (Yeah, this is another Covid movie.) Deeply lonely, her husband Howard stuck overseas in the gore-sodden trenches, Pearl’s deepest, darkest impulses bubble to the surface, eventually capitulating to a feast of limb-chopping viscera and blood-spurting mayhem.
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Before that she retreats into a technicolor imaginary, vividly colorful and scored with studio-era pizzazz. Take the opening sequence: the camera dollies through big barn doors to see the family farmhouse, quaint as you like, backed by rolling hills and a cloudless sky, all with the saturation turned up to eleven. It’s a fun albeit curious choice if you think about it for more than a moment: that “X” so readily aped the ‘70s was appropriate for a slasher set in that latter decade, where “Pearl” locates itself a good twenty years before Dorothy was sucked out of Kansas. Sure, there’s the sense that Pearl is ahead of her time: had she been born twenty years later, would she have had a better chance to chase her dreams, dodging her axe-wielding impulses altogether? Perhaps. The sense one really gets, alas, is that West wanted to make a movie about a blood-thirsty Norma Desmond by way of a Tennessee Williams dame and the present-day imposition of IP demanded a springboard — that or “Pearl” wouldn’t be green-lit in and of itself, being shot concurrently to “X” early last year.
Which would be a darned shame: flimsy logic notwithstanding, “Pearl” is the superior of the two heavily-stylized slashers, partly because it dedicates so much time to building the eponymous antiheroine from the ground up. As Pearl descends further into madness, suffocated by Ruth’s piousness, her terrible isolation, and her dad’s… incontinence, Goth lends her great credibility: yeah, she ends up cartoonishly shanking someone through the back of the throat with a pitchfork (the franchise now two-for-two on badass John Deere kills), but up that point, and even after it, she’s eminently sympathetic. That we felt for Pearl’s length in the tooth in “X” was one of its key assets, and while “Pearl” is still enormously redundant as an origin tale (because, well, who cares about the early years of a one-off horror villain) it shines as a surprisingly rich character study.
Though it doesn’t need to share any franchise flesh — that it’s linked really does feel like a cash-grab, a move of financial convenience, or the confluence of the two — “Pearl” speaks to broadly similar themes as “X”. It’s about how we’re seen in the world, challenging our inherent voyeurism, and how our most fundamental instinct is to make ourselves as desirable as possible. For the younger Pearl, this manifests as the urge to take to the screen and dance in the new motion pictures — and persists through to her final days, her killer proclivities driven by rejection, both emotional and sexual. Goth’s greatest moment in the picture, a long, winding monologue in which an elaborate confession drops out of her like a bird desperate to escape its cage, speaks to this most explicitly: “I just want to be loved,” Pearl tells her sister-in-law, misty-eyed like a child desperately unaware of their foibles. Moments later, she drives a wood axe through her face. [B]

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