Heads up! This piece contains MASSIVE SPOILERS For the movie pearl. We kindly ask that you “see the movie first and come back to read it after.
We all know the story. The story of little Dorothy Gale and the adventure she has when taken to the wonderful land of Oz. The Wizard of Oz is one of the most timeless pieces of American literature ever produced, and the 1939 film adaptation remains one of the greatest (and scariest) films of all time. This has caused many filmmakers of all genres and walks of life to draw inspiration from the classic story in different ways over the years. Ti West takes it to a whole new level with his new movie Pearl, the prequel to his slasher movie X which tells the story of the titular character and his descent into complete madness.
The film is littered with parallels reminiscent of the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Ozshowing how the fairy tale can be used in a different context than we are used to.
From the outset, the aesthetic and cinematic choices are reminiscent of the era of Technicolor cinema. Technicolor is a color filmmaking process that dates back to 1916 and uses a three-band system in which a modified camera captures images through different color filters (usually red, green, and blue) and is processed separately so that each band would “print” different colors on a finished print of the film. The result was a vibrant display of color not commonly seen in this era of cinema, although one film in particular became famous for its use of the process: The Wizard of Oz. pearl pays homage to this by using a vivid color palette of vivid reds, greens and blues, visually evoking the spirit of The Wizard of Oz.
From there, we are introduced to Pearl (mia goth), a solitary farmer who leads a quiet life on the family farm. She helps care for her invalid father and is constantly berated by her overbearing mother, Ruth. She dreams of a better life, but her husband is fighting in World War I and her predicament has left her with nowhere to go. Pearl is a mirror image of Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz (up to the pigtail braids). In this film, Dorothy lives on a farm with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry and dreams of a place “over the rainbow” to escape the mundane life she leads.
Pearl then rides her bike to town to pick up her father’s medicine. When she arrives in town, we are presented with a whole different world than the one Pearl is used to. There’s music and people living their lives freely, and Pearl’s problems go away with an escape to the movies (with a side of micro-dosing). It is here that she also meets the projectionist (David Corenswet) of the theater she frequents (more on him later). This parallels the iconic scene of The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is taken to the land of Oz. From the muted, dull palette of his world of sepia tones to a technicolor fantasy only possible in dreams.
As Pearl returns home, by chance she is led to a cornfield which is home to a scarecrow watching over the field. Curious, Pearl begins talking and dancing with the scarecrow seductively, eventually leading to a scene where she plays out a sexual encounter with him and imagines the projectionist’s face before having a violent outburst informing her that she is bride. Ashamed of what she has done, she returns home with the Scarecrow’s hat in tow.
The design of the scarecrow is obviously very inspired by the design used by actor Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz. A renowned dancer during his lifetime, the filmmakers gave his character a dance number during his presentation and pearl repays the favor by having them share an intimate dance. It should be noted that the script for the 1939 film has an ending scene where the Scarecrow’s human counterpart, Hunk, leaves for agricultural college and Dorothy promises to write to him, implying a romantic relationship.
After a visit from Pearl’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law, Misty (Emma JenkinsPurro), she learns that a local troupe is holding auditions for their traveling show. Seeing this as her opportunity to escape her provincial life, she confronts her mother about auditioning for the dance troupe. Her mother has a violent outburst in response and recounts how she sacrificed everything to care for Pearl’s father, including his dreams and goals. The argument reaches a boiling point when Pearl fights with her mother over the fireplace and Mom’s dress catches fire, setting her on fire. Acting quickly, Pearl proceeds to throw water at her screaming mother, enveloping her in a cloud of smoke, and throws her into the cellar to die. This is the scene where we see Ruth evolve from Auntie Em’s stand-in to a twisted metaphor for the Wicked Witch of the West, complete with a recreation of the climactic scene where Dorothy throws water on her and kills her in the process.
Pearl flees into the projectionist’s arms at the theater where they share an intimate love scene, despite being married, and he also promises to take her to Europe. The next day, he offers to drive her home so she can prepare for her big audition. When he hears Pearl’s mother in the basement, he confronts her and eventually overhears her lying and decides to leave, suggesting that he has no interest in seeing her again despite their rapidly developing romance. Feeling slighted, Pearl snaps and stabs him in the heart, submerging his body (and his car) in a nearby swamp. The projectionist is a cold, heartless bastard in Pearl’s eyes, the movie twisted version of the Tin Man who sadly has no heart. She takes revenge by destroying his heart. It’s important to recognize that he’s the only character who shares any kind of intimacy with Pearl, an act usually reserved for lovers.
In the final act, Pearl dons one of Ruth’s dresses – a long red dress as a twisted subversion of Dorothy’s signature short blue dress she wore when she visited Oz – and heads to her audition. After not getting the role in the troupe, Pearl and Misty return to the farm where Pearl breaks down and confesses everything she’s done while revealing her resentment towards her husband for abandoning her and going to the war. The dance troupe was to Pearl what the hot air balloon was to Dorothy, the total fulfillment of her wishes and an escape to the life she deserves. Scared by her confession, Misty tries to leave as Pearl confronts her about doing dance troupe and not telling her. Misty in this scene could be seen as evocative of The Wizard of Oz‘s Cowardly Lion in his fear of Pearl, and his hair also seems to be a nod to the curly locks the Cowardly Lion sported in the original movie.
After brutally murdering Misty with an axe, Pearl vows to “fix everything” and gathers her parents’ corpses to the table to show that in her mind things can return to normal despite everything that’s happened. Howard returns from the war to find the rotting corpses in the dining room and Pearl donning her farm girl look from the start. Know what we know of X, she never leaves the farm. Doomed to spend the rest of her life in a mundane existence and not live the life she felt she deserved. At the end of the day, Pearl realizes…
“There is no place like home.”