The Plot: Texas, 1918. Pearl (Mia Goth) is missing her husband, who is off at war. She lives with her mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) and her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) on their farm outside of town. There’s also an influenza pandemic to deal with, but that doesn’t stop Pearl from going to the movies. She dreams of a life less ordinary and desperately wants to escape the farm and become a dancer or a movie star. This is where she catches the attention of a projectionist (David Corenswet) and they strike up a flirtatious conversation. To really escape this life of drudgery, she will have to make some drastic choices…
The Verdict: When director Ti West’s cheeky little shocker X came out last year, it caught attention with its retro vibe, creepy Texan farm setting and attractive young people vs decrepit old people showdown. Amongst all this was a sly double performance from Mia Goth as not only the archetypal final girl Maxine but also the female antagonist Pearl, buried under layers of convincing old age make-up. Pearl was certainly a character to remember, given her surprisingly lusty behaviour and casual penchant for bloodletting. West hasn’t stopped there though. Having hit upon a successful concept, he’s now X-panded to a trilogy of films. The third film begins shooting imminently and will pick up Maxine’s story in 1985 as she heads out to Hollywood to find success. It’s where Pearl should have ended up of course, but now she gets her own origin story as West rewinds the clock for the second film Pearl and tracks just what made her so wild and homicidal in the first place.
Pearl is very much a continuing collaboration between director and lead actor. Not only does Goth take the lead once again, but she executive produces as well. West also invited her to co-write the script with him. The result of that collaboration is a richly humourous affair that is full of dreamy ambition, youthful innocence and fears of an unfulfilled life. There’s also some suitably off-the-wall scenes that suggest that the character of Pearl is a couple of film reels short of a feature-length film. An early scene shows her dancing with a scarecrow she’s pulled down from a post before, well, doing something else with it… She also has a pet alligator that she likes to feed. She’s a young woman tied to her parents’ farm and her duties there, but is lonely without her husband and wants more from life. As she defiantly tells her German immigrant mother, she doesn’t want to end up like her. That’s an understandably rebellious instinct, but there’s more to Pearl than just that.
Goth has worked steadily over the past few years catching eyes with her debut in Nymphomaniac: Volume II and also in The Survivalist. Pearl is her most impressive performance yet. She does something quite remarkable here, embodying a character who is as sweet as apple pie yet as worldly as the adult film star alter ago she confronts decades later. She also carefully balances this with a demented and dangerous edge that just requires the merest of sparks to set it off. It’s a delicate balance to pull off, moving from shy girly innocence one moment and using a pitch fork as a deadly weapon the next. It’s done so subtly though – the true definition of invisible acting. This is also evident in a revealing climactic monologue which holds on Goth’s face for over five minutes in an unbroken take. There’s a strong sense here Goth is in fine tune with the character, along with her director’s sensibilities. It’s the kind of full-bodied performance in a horror film that is typically overlooked during Awards Season, but is worth a nomination nonetheless.
Along with Goth, West himself is on fine form. He directs with swirling, old-school camera shots, silent film transitions like iris-out and the farm in vivid Technicolor like it’s The Wizard Of Oz in reverse. It’s only the films-within-the-film that are in black and white. X was patchy in spots and more than a bit outrageous, but it still held together well. Pearl though is a more confident and precise film that gets the heightened tone just right and the characterisation spot-on. As Pearl (the character and the film) eventually goes off the rails, it does so in glorious fashion with a knowing rictus grin. It’s a bloody gem of a film to be treasured.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Bloody gem
Directed by Ti West.
Starring Mia Goth, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, David Corenswet, Emma Jenkins-Purro.