Ti West’s wickedly entertaining Xreleased earlier this year, transplanted the small cast and crew of a low-rent 1970s Los Angeles porn production to Texas Chainsaw Massacre territory, then unleashed an unsuspected evil on them. Its film-within-a-film, bump-and-grindhouse gambit doubled the exploitation fun while subverting norms of female sexuality, upending the male gaze and resurrecting that most lurid throwback, the deranged nymphomaniacal hag. Rewinding six decades, Pearl stokes more dreams of stardom only to dismantle them pitilessly, meaning someone’s going to pay in blood.
If the resulting series of kills stints on imagination and lacks much of a genuine scare factor, the prequel’s retro stylings are a treat. The saturated colors of cinematographer Eliot Rockett’s visuals practically leap off the screen and the big surging sounds of Tyler Bates and Tim Williams’ old-school orchestral score signal high drama and danger from the start. The vintage title font and inventive use of wipes and dissolves in scene transitions complete the winking 1950s illusion.
The Bottom Line
A Sirkian slasher movie? Why not?
It’s as if Todd Haynes rethought Far From Heavenmaking Julianne Moore respond to having a closeted gay husband and a taboo interracial romance by getting really pissed off with a pitchfork and an axe.
After pulling double duty in X as aspiring porn queen Maxine and Pearl, the wizened farmer’s wife still yearning to see herself as an object of desire on the silver screen in her mind, Mia Goth returns to the title character here in 1918, a time when her innocence is just beginning to curdle Her performance has a doe-eyed Shelley Duvall quality, both excited and frightened by the urges overcoming her.
Goth co-wrote the screenplay with West while they were in COVID quarantine in New Zealand for the X shooting, filming Pearl back-to-back on the same sets and locations. Even when the writing and pacing falter — an over-extended monologue about Pearl’s crushing realization that her dreams might remain unfulfilled almost stops the film in its tracks late in the action — Goth’s commitment to the role’s bonkers, larger-than-life energy and archetypal twists remain commanding.
Pearl is pining for her husband, off fighting in the war as the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic rips through the world. She lives in the farmhouse under the repressive rule of her strictly religious German immigrant mother Ruth (Tandi Wright), helping to care for her infirm father (Mathew Sunderland), rendered mute and immobile by his condition. But the depressing state of her life doesn’t stop Pearl from twirling around her bedroom, dreaming of becoming a dancer in pictures.
“I’m special,” she says, mirroring Maxine’s certainty in the earlier film that she had the “X factor.” “One day the whole world’s gonna know my name.” That belief in herself is mocked by the embittered Ruth, who predicts that she’s doomed to fail. She also observes her daughter’s weird traits, perhaps noticing when farm animals disappear to be fed by Pearl to the alligator that lives in the lake.
Dipping into her father’s morphine sulphate to ease her frustrations, Pearl escapes when she can to the local movie house, where the handsome projectionist (David Corenswet) takes an interest in her, encouraging her showbiz ambitions. At first, she remains faithful to her absent husband, working out her horniness on a cornfield scarecrow. But when the projectionist shows Pearl a racy European “art” film (a hilarious B&W pre-talkie West pastiche), sex between them is already in the air. She confides in him about being trapped with her parents: “If only they would just die.”
It’s a safe bet in a Ti West film that Pearl will get her wish, although it will take some agonizing time and they won’t be the only casualties as she pins all her hopes of stardom on an upcoming audition for a regional dance revue, being held at a local church.
Ruth, meanwhile, doubles down on the restrictions when she perceives the darkness inside her daughter. “Malevolence is festering inside you,” she tells Pearl. “I can see it, and I will not let you leave this farm again.” That’s bad news for everyone, including Pearl’s perky sister-in-law (Emma Jenkins-Purro), who sneaks off to the dance audition with her.
Goth is terrific at revealing the threads barely holding Pearl together as they steadily unravel and her sanity starts slipping, making her more fearful of her own disturbing capabilities. “There’s something missing in me that the rest of the world has,” she mutters in a tremulous voice, while plotting her escape from the farm, her elaborate fantasies and reality increasingly indistinguishable.
West and Goth don’t shy away from the arch campiness of the scenario, but it’s chilling nonetheless when Pearl starts wreaking carnage and her poor dad can only watch in terrified silence. And it’s a testament to the collision of sweet and sinister in Goth’s performance that we feel her heartbreak when the audition goes south, pushing her over the edge.
As the action careens wildly over the top, Pearl becomes both an agent of chaos and a tragic figure, a vengeful Dorothy denied access to the rainbow. The deep red of the farmhouse’s hallway wallpaper positively throbs, while the roast suckling pig left on the porch by Ruth in her refusal of charity becomes a teeming hive of maggots.
It’s difficult to know what hardcore horror fans will make of this, given that it’s mostly a riff on traditional “women’s picture” tropes with a light seasoning of grisly slasher action, rather than the reverse. But as a cleverly packaged pandemic production with narrative echoes of that global anxiety, it’s at the very least something fresh. A gruesome portrait of another young woman hungering for a life greater than the fate she’s been handed, it makes an amusing companion piece to X.
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