(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
I had reasonably high expectations for “X”, an unashamed ode to slasher movies and grindhouse sleaze that released earlier this year. Sadly, it ended up feeling more like a trashy knockoff than anything remotely fresh. But then a prequel was announced titled “Pearl”, and its trailer offered a stylish and delightfully brutal blast of technicolor-soaked horror. I was instantly intrigued.
Because of “X”, I entered “Pearl” with a fair amount of caution. After seeing it, I left the film mostly impressed by what West had put together. “Pearl” is impossible to put into a single box. It’s an origin story, a rural horror movie, a psychological thriller, a pitch-black comedy, a gonzo exploitation flick. And while not all of it fits together seamlessly, West’s focus is tighter and he doesn’t stray off course or get bogged down in as much nonsense this time around.
“Pearl” truly is West’s baby. He directs, edits, co-writes, and co-produces. But most people will leave the film talking about its star, Mia Goth (who’s also credited as co-writer). The British actress pulls out her thick Southern accent and steps back into the skin of Pearl, a troubled young woman with a twisted imagination and big dreams of becoming a movie star. Goth played an elderly Pearl in “X”, but here she gets to put aside the heavy prosthetics to play a younger Pearl at a crucial point in her life.
The movie’s sumptuous opening puts us right back on the farm from “X”. West starts us in the barn, swinging open its large double doors to reveal a sun-bathed yellow farmhouse surrounded by bright green grass. It’s almost Rockwellian in its presentation. Yet before the opening credits are done, West and Goth give us a jolt just to let us know there’s nothing idyllic about the world we’ve entered. And from that moment there’s a lingering sense of unease which West maintains to the film’s eerie final frame.
I can’t overstate how essential that uneasy feeling is to the movie’s success. West wants us to know from the start that Pearl is unwell. Sure, people who have seen “X” already have a good idea. But for those who haven’t, West makes it clear in the opening moments. With that understanding comes anticipation. We know bad things are coming. We know she’s going to break. The question becomes when and how? What drives her? How far does she go? West has us in the palm of his hand. It’s just up to him to deliver the payoff. For the most part he does.
While the ever-present simmer of dread is vital, Goth’s performance is the centerpiece. Aside from the hints of theatrics in a few scenes, Goth really sells us her damaged character. But what stands out most is her ability to make Pearl uncomfortably deranged while earning our empathy. Some of it is due to West’s script which gives Pearl room to develop and her circumstances time to metastasize. But most comes from Goth who captures every twisted facet of her character.
“Pearl” takes place as World War I and the equally deadly Spanish Flu were nearing their ends, yet the reverberations of both were still being felt across the globe. With her husband Howard away at war, Pearl is left to tend to her parents’ farm and help her stern German-born mother (Tandi Wright) take care of her wheelchair bound father (Matthew Sutherland). But Pearl’s heart is elsewhere. She has an unhealthy obsession with being a movie star. She sees it as her ticket off the farm, much to the chagrin of her cynical mother.
ThAfter developing its setting and her circumstances, the movie simply follows Pearl over the next several days as she encounters people and situations that will ultimately play into her inevitable breakdown. Among the key players is a hunky bohemian theater projectionist (David Corenswet) who shows Pearl a stag film he picked up while in Europe (a lazy, wedged-in attempt at linking to “X” and the upcoming third film). And there’s Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), Pearl’s sister-in-law who accompanies her to a church-sponsored dance troupe audition.
This simple yet effective approach paints us a rich and detailed portrait of Pearl – one that grows more unsettling by the minute. Along the way, West uses his story to comment on quarantine life, pandemic era paranoia, and the damaging effects of isolation. There’s also a brilliantly layered examination of family dysfunction that shows how deep-seated pain can fester into something toxic and destructive.
“Pearl” is a deliciously unhinged slice of period horror that’ll have you chuckling one minute and squirming in your seat the next. It improves on “X” in nearly every perceivable way, yet it’s very much its own movie that feels plucked out of time. The visual craft, the ingenious score from Tyler Bates and Tim Williams, and of course Mia Goth’s next-level performance are all crucial to realizing West’s vision. And while there are reasons to be leery of the teased third film, it doesn’t hinder the enjoyment of “Pearl” which is plenty able to stand on its own. “Pearl” is now showing in theaters.
We differed on X but are in agreement on this one. The mesmerizing 9 minutes at the end show Mia Goth as a performer to watch. This segment makes her award worthy but of course a little horror film like this will never break through to the powers that be. Just watch and be amazed. No cuts, no camera tricks, just pure acting talent.
It’s a scene most will be talking about. She’s lights out in it. But I also loved the wacky genre jolts that intensify as the movie moves forward. I’m a big fan.
I want to see X first and then this film as I have heard great things about this. Especially for Mia Goth who is starting to break out on her own as I await for the next film in the trilogy. The fact that the film got high praise from Martin Scorsese himself says a lot.
I feel this is head and shoulders about X in nearly every way. But a lot of people really like X so I wouldn’t say don’t see it. But definitely see Pearl. And it’ll work for you either before or after X.
Ooh going to wait to see Pearl before reading your whole review. I do see you gave it a 4 and that is very encouraging. I really liked Mia Goth in X and looking forward to seeing her in Pearl.
She’s really, really good in this. I love the look of it and the slow simmering sense of dread. Really well done.
Great review! I can’t wait to see this one.
Thanks so much. As you can tell, I was impressed.