Heads up! This piece contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for the movie Pearl. We kindly “axe” that you see the movie first and come back to read this afterwards.
We all know the story. The story of little Dorothy Gale and the adventure she has when she’s whisked away 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 most frightening) films of all time. This has caused numerous filmmakers of all genres and backgrounds to be inspired by the classic story in different ways over the years. Ten West brings it to a whole other level with his new film Pearl, the prequel to his slasher movie X that tells the story of the titular character and her descent into complete madness.
The film is littered with parallels calling back to the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Ozshowing how the fairy tale story can be used in a different context to what we’re used to.
Right off the bat, the aesthetic and filmic style choices call back to the era of technicolor filmmaking. Technicolor is a process of filming color movies that dates back to 1916 and uses a three-strip system in which a modified camera would capture footage through different color filters (typically red, green, and blue), and be processed separately so that each strip would “print” various colors onto a finished print of the film. The result was a vivid display of color not commonly seen in this era of filmmaking, although one film in particular became famous for its use of the process: The Wizard of Oz. Pearl pays tribute to this city using a vivid color palette of bright reds, greens and blues, visually evoking the spirit of The Wizard of Oz.
From here we’re introduced to Pearl (Mia Goth), a lonely farmgirl who lives a quiet life on her family’s farm. She helps take care of her invalid father and is constantly chastised by her overbearing mother, Ruth. She dreams of a better life but her husband is fighting in World War I and her predicament has her with no place else to go. Pearl is a mirror image of Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz (right down to the pigtail braids). In that film Dorothy lives on a farm with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry and dreams of some place “over the rainbow” to escape the mundane life that she leads.
Pearl then rides into town on her bicycle to fetch her father medicine. When she gets to town we’re presented with a whole different world than the one Pearl is accustomed to. There’s music playing and people freely living their lives, and Pearl’s troubles melt away with an escape to the movie theater (with a side of micro-dosing). While here she also meets the projectionist (David Corenswet) of the theater she frequents (more on him later). This runs parallel to the iconic scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is whisked away to the land of Oz. From the muted, murderous palette of her sepia tone world to a technicolor fantasy only possible in dreams.
As Pearl heads home she by happenstance is led into a corn field that is home to a scarecrow that oversees the field. Curious, Pearl begins seductively talking to and dancing with the scarecrow, ultimately leading to a scene where she plays out a sexual encounter with it and imagines the face of the projectionist before having a violent outburst informing it that she’s married. Ashamed of what she’s done she heads back home with the scarecrow’s hat in tow.
The scarecrow’s design is obviously very much inspired by the design that was used on actor Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz. A noted dancer while he was alive, the filmmakers gave his character a dance number when he was introduced and Pearl repays the favor by having them share an intimate dance. Something to note is that the 1939 film’s script has an ending scene where the Scarecrow’s human counterpart, Hunk, leaves for agriculture college and Dorothy promises to write to him, implying a romantic connection.
After a visit from Pearl’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law, Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro), she learns of a local troupe that’s 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 talks about how she sacrificed everything to take care of Pearl’s father, including her dreams and goals. The argument reaches a boiling point when Pearl fights with her mother over the fireplace and mom’s dress ignites, setting her ablaze. Acting fast, Pearl proceeds to throw water on her screaming mother, enveloping her in a cloud of smoke, and throws her down into the cellar to die. This is the scene where we see Ruth evolve from the Auntie Em stand-in to a twisted metaphor for the Wicked Witch of the West, complete with a recreation of the climatic scene where Dorothy throws water on her and kills her in the process.
Pearl runs away into the arms of the Projectionist at the theater where they share an intimate love scene, despite her being married, and he also promises to take her to Europe. The next day he offers her a ride to her house so that she can prepare for her big audition. When he hears Pearl’s mother in the basement he confronts her and eventually catches her in a lie and decides to leave, suggesting he has no interest in seeing her again despite their quickly developing romance. Feeling scorned, Pearl snaps and proceeds to stab him in the heart, submerging his body (and car) in a nearby swamp. The Projectionist is a cold, heartless bastard in Pearl’s eyes, the movie’s twisted version of the Tin Man who infamously has no heart. She gets revenge by destroying his heart. It’s important to acknowledge that he’s the only character who shares any sort of intimacy with Pearl, an act usually only reserved for those in love.
In the final act, Pearl dons one of Ruth’s dresses – a long red dress as a twisted subversion of Dorothy’s iconic short blue dress that she wore when she visited Oz – and heads to her audition. After not getting the part in the troupe, Pearl and Misty head back to the farm where Pearl breaks down and confesses everything she’s done while also revealing her resentment for her husband for abandoning her and heading off to war. The dance troupe was to Pearl what the hot air balloon was to Dorothy, total wish fulfillment and an escape to the life that she deserves. Frightened of her confession, Misty attempts to leave as Pearl confronts her about making the dance troupe and not telling her. Misty in this scene could be viewed as being evocative of The Wizard of Oz‘s Cowardly Lion in her fearfulness of Pearl, and her hair also feels to be a nod to the curled locks that the Cowardly Lion sported in the original film.
After brutally murdering Misty with an axe, Pearl vows to “fix everything” and assembles the corpses of her parents at the dinner table to show that in her mind, things can return to normal despite everything that happened. Howard arrives home from war to find the rotting corpses in the dining room and Pearl donning her farmgirl look from the beginning. Knowing what we know from X, she never leaves the farm. Doomed to spend the rest of her days in a mundane existence and not living the life she felt that she deserved. At the end of the day Pearl realizes…
“There’s No Place Like Home.”