This review contains spoilers for the movie X
Last year director Ti West surprised us with a little film that he made called X, which was a homage to slashers of the 1970s (most notably The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). It focused on a film crew attempting to make an artsy pornographic movie in an isolated farmhouse in Texas with a creepy elderly couple stalking them. It was a real treat for horror fans, and it never ran the risk of steering into pastiche or parody territory. What was even more surprising about the film was that right after the credits we were given a little teaser for Pearl; an origin story for the creepy old lady. Oh and it was to be released a couple of months later after X in the United States… madness. So how does Pearl hold up? Well, if X was excellent then Pearl is even better ( I couldn’t find an appropriate pun to get across how great this film is).
Set in 1918 amidst the influenza pandemic, Pearl (Mia Goth) is a young woman working on her family’s farmhouse (the exact same one from X). She endures abuse from her cruel mother (Tandi Wright) and looks after to her sick father (Matthew Sunderland) all while she waits for her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) to return home from war. Pearl’s world is grim but she has dreams and aspirations to be a star and a dancer in the ‘moving pictures’ and when an opportunity arises for her to audition for a dance troupe that will whisk her away from her troubled home life, Pearl jumps to the occasion. However, there may be some evil and violent tendencies bubbling inside of her, and maybe close to bursting out into the forefront (as a poor goose finds out the hard way at the start of the film).
In a similar manner to X, the film does a lot with its presentation. Whereas that film was clearly using the aesthetic framework of the grungy film style of the 70s, Pearl has a different coat of paint altogether. This film is trying to replicate the same feel of a film plucked right from the golden era of cinema (circa 1920) with bright blues, greens and reds, circular transitions, and italicised font spread right across the screen. It’s beautiful to look at even if there is the occasional grisly murder sequence takes place. Composers Tyler Bates and Tim Williams also do something similar with the score as it comes across as intentionally whimsical and sentimental serving as a humorous counterpoint to some of the more horrific moments on display here. The film is essentially The Wizard of Oz but instead of a yellow-bricked road, we have a red blood-splattered driveway.
The exaggerated colour palette and over-the-top score are clearly intentional as the film is offering some substantial commentary about the corrupt nature of Hollywood. The films of the 1920s were romanticised depictions of events where characters overcame odds and achieved their goals and they all lived happily ever after. It could be interpreted that West is showing how the industry can be full of false promises like in Pearl’s case where she dreams of being taken away from her troubled life and having her dreams come true. There is also a clever tie-in to X with the inclusion of the character named ‘the projectionist’ (David Corenswet) with whom Pearl begins to develop a connection and at one point he shows her a particular type of movie that may be similar to the one that the crew was attempting to make in X. Could this be interpreted as the catalyst for Pearl’s naive and innocent outlook on the world transforming into something far more twisted and menacing?
Right in the centre of this film is Mia Goth (who also serves as one of the co-screenwriters alongside West) who gives a terrific performance. There are a lot of moments that require a lot from her emotionally and she more than proves she is up to the challenge. There is one scene toward the end where she delivers a heartbreaking six-minute-long monologue that has no cuts and is something that is worthy of any prestigious acting award nominations. She is truly fantastic here and much like Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillip’s Joker it’s a film that is largely elevated by a strong leading performance. Although I would argue that the film that surrounds Goth is a lot better than Joker. Pearl is also a prequel story that actually improves a lot of elements of X and that film was already solid on its own and furthermore, it gives you clarity as to why things went sideways for Pearl (Spoiler-alert for X: Pearl’s dreams didn’t come true and she didn’t take it well).
It’s impressive how this prequel is still able to retain the elements that made its predecessor work but it also builds from them and stands on its own as its own unique story. It is definitely paying homage to another era of cinema but it does so in a clever and unique way with Mia Goth’s brilliant performance leading the charge. Like X, we’re going to be getting a third entry in this unexpected franchise with Mia Goth reprising her role as her character in MaxXxine; a 1980s slasher set in Los Angeles. There is no doubt that Goth will continue to slay on the silver screen just like she did here.
Pearl screened at DIFF 2023 and is out in Irish cinemas from the 17th of March.