Director Ti West and his lead actress Mia Goth wrote the screenplay for “Pearl” in just two weeks during a lockdown in New Zealand while waiting to shoot their Horror film, “X”.
With very few exceptions, Horror sequels are unwise. Prequels are even harder to pull off, as an origin story can ruin a certain villain’s (or film’s) mystique.
One of the smartest moves of West’s “X” was having Mia Goth play both the “Final Girl” and the elderly, murderous, Pearl. The actress made the most of both roles, her wide eyes and youthful face were intoxicating as the young girl whose world is turned upside down, and as Pearl, completely buried under heavy prosthetics.
While we know the character’s fate, West goes for more of a twisted character study this time, as “Pearl” is the tale of a madwoman.
The year is 1918 (an era the director can’t really pull off here). Pearl lives on a farm with her near-vegetative father (Matthew Sunderland) and domineering mother (Tandi Wright). She is a dreamer and fantasizes of becoming a star in Hollywood musicals.
Pearl often sneaks off to “the pictures” to see the wonder of musicals and daydream of a glamorous life away.
This is where she meets a movie projectionist (David Corenswet) who seems kind, but eventually reveals his plan for seduction by showing her an early Stag film from France. The projectionist matter-of-factly says he will someday take her to Paris, an offer which Pearl takes as gospel.
The character of the projectionist is useful (as he gives Pearl the final crushing blow to her heart), but their scenes are flimsily written, and the film fails to make his presence interesting.
Pearl’s husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) is fighting in WWI and the only human presence that seems to give her joy is her husband’s sister Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro).
One day on a visit, she tells Pearl of an audition for a dance show at the local church. The show will be traveling around, and Pearl sees this as her way out of her unfulfilling life on the farm.
Visually, the film finds its greatest success. Ti West and his cameraman Elliot Rockett find a symmetry in the look of Hollywood’s golden age and the Southern-set Drive-In Horror of the early to mid-1970’s.
The film is full of beautiful shots of sun-drenched cornfields and green hills. We are seeing the world through Pearl’s rose-colored glasses, but there is always something brewing in the distance and in her mind. Dark clouds appear on the horizons, as Pearl’s grip on reality slips.
The film’s best shot has Pearl riding her bike past a cornfield while a storm covers the sky for miles (a nod to Margret Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz”). This is a beautifully crafted moment where director and cinematographer use every inch of their frame, something most modern filmmakers wouldn’t dare to do.
The beautiful camerawork and West’s patient direction eventually bring it all home while the wonderful orchestral score from Tyler Bates and Tim Williams sells the director’s love for the atmosphere of 70s genre flicks.
While the supporting cast fails to register, Mia Goth is mesmerizing. The actress, along with her director and co-writer, gifted herself something wholly cinematic.
Goth gives everything to this performance. Her work is filled with a sweetness that gives way to an inner evil streak as the character takes the audience through many emotions. Pearl earns our sympathies while terrifying us and makes us laugh while we pity her. We almost buy into her unattainable pipe dreams.
The coup de grâce of the performance is a five-plus minute monologue where Pearl reveals to her sister-in-law (and to herself) the true violent desires that guide her life. The moment is jaw-dropping and completely intoxicating, as West smartly holds the shot, knowing his audience will hang on every single word of dialogue.
The film is not without flaws. Setting the film in 1918 is fine, but West uses the influenza pandemic of the time as nothing beyond a reference to our recent Covid issues. To what end? To no end.
The many movie references held within the film fail to play as the filmmaker hoped, as each one is from a film made well after 1918.
For a time, the styles and film call-backs exist more as a patchwork than a cohesive film.
For Horror fans, there are a couple of gleefully unsettling moments (the creepiest is when Pearl gets off with a scarecrow) that give the film some horror sparks.
“Pearl” is not an empty piece, but one wonders if the character warrants her own film. What stands is more of a showcase for Mia Goth talents, and that is just fine. So strong is her work in this picture that I look forward to the just announced third film, “MaXXXine”.
With Mia Goth front and center, the next one is already worth the price of admission.
Written By Mia Goth & Ti West
Directed By Ti West
Starring Mia Goth, Emma Jenkins-Purro, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, David Corenswet
R, 102 Minutes, A24/Bron Creative