This article contains spoilers for Pearl.
In the two-and-a-half years since Covid shut the world down in March 2020, we've gotten plenty of "Covid movies." But Covid movies come in two different varieties. Locked Down and Kimi are Covid movies, because the filmmakers incorporate the pandemic into the plot. But others, like Malcolm & Marie and Bodies Bodies Bodies, are Covid movies in the sense that they were shot during the pandemic, and have limited scope as a result; both of those movies only required one principal location.
Pearl was shot during the pandemic and only has a few locations, so it’s a Covid movie in the second sense. But, despite the presence of masks and isolation, it isn’t a Covid movie in the first sense. Instead, this period piece is set during the Spanish Flu pandemic, and it’s all the more powerful for it.
Writer-director Ti West and Mia Goth (who stars, co-wrote the film, and executive produced it) are able to channel the feeling of living through a pandemic without having to perfectly reproduce the details of the current one. The film is, as a result, as emotionally accurate a portrayal as I’ve seen of the despair and psychological trauma that living through a time of mass death with no light at the end of the tunnel can cause.
The prequel to West’s 2022 slasher X follows Pearl, the elderly character that Mia Goth played in that movie. When we meet her here, she’s a young woman struggling through the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, living an isolated life that is mostly contained to the family farm where her strict German mother rules with an iron fist. Her father is in a vegetative state implied to be caused by a particularly damaging bout of the flu. In her life here, she finds joy in performing dance routines for the farm animals. An early scene showing this routine is interrupted with violence when Pearl slaughters a goose with a pitchfork and feeds it to the alligator that lives in the nearby creek.
Pearl does get to take the occasional trip to town for errands, but if her mother finds out that she had contact with anyone she doesn't know, she'll force her in to quarantine. Still, she goes to the movies because she dreams of being a dancer (there’s something oddly cathartic about watching a person on screen lower their mask to take a drink at a movie theater moments after you lowered your mask to take a drink at a movie theater). But in town, Pearl’s interactions are, largely, mediated through the lens of disease. When she meets a handsome projectionist after the show, she’s nervous to share a cigarette with him at first. But, he says something to the effect of, “What? You don’t think I got the bug, do ya?”
She doesn’t seem especially worried about getting sick, though. Instead, her existence seems to have been isolated before the flu came, and the restrictions around the disease have further isolated her. Her mother uses the guise of reasonable concerns about contracting the flu to manipulate Pearl into doing what she wants.
In the riveting six minute monologue at the movie's climax, Pearl explains her unease with who she is as a person and expresses despair that she'll never escape her small, isolated life. As someone who has felt pretty intense anxiety about whether the pandemic will ever truly end, I relate to Pearl's feeling that she's just waiting for her real life to start. The fact that she's confessing murders to her terrified sister-in-law doesn't make this moment any less relatable. In fact, the heightened feeling of hopelessness that comes from Pearl having killed her entire family moments before only causes the moment to land even harder.
Pearl once again highlights what horror fans have known for decades: the heightening that comes with genre can bring a story closer to its emotional truth than strict realism ever could.
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