Mia Goth is luminous in Ti West’s Pearl, a prequel to last year’s slasher X that’s a character study of its villain – here’s our review.
You’ve seen the final shot of Pearl already, if you’ve opened Twitter in the last 12 months. It features Mia Goth as the title character, holding her eyes wide and her face in a rictus grin. That shot is held for several minutes as the film’s credits appear over her face, while Goth wordlessly wrestles with the many facets of her character’s journey over the preceding hour and a half of screen time. It’s a wide smile full of effort and artifice, which occasionally drops to feel the horrifying truth behind it – this is a woman who has seen and done awful things.
Genre fans are already familiar with Goth’s special talent, whether it’s in the Suspiria remake, the bizarre health spa horror A Cure For Wellness or her double role in last year’s X – for which Pearl serves as a prequel. In just a few years, Goth has placed herself at the centre of the horror firmament without becoming the rather old-fashioned and simplistic notion of a “scream queen.” She’s more complicated and intriguing than that and, should she want to, she can just run the horror genre for the next decade.
Set in 1918 – 60 years before X – the movie finds Pearl living with her stern German mother (Tandi Wright) and her flu-ravaged father, while her husband Howard is off fighting in the First World War. She harbours dreams of becoming a movie star and regularly sneaks off to her local picture house, where she forms a quasi-romantic bond with the projectionist (David Corenswet). When her pal Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) reveals that a studio is casting dancers for an upcoming production, she spots a chance to escape her homestead in search of a shot at fame.
Returning director Ti West was open in describing X as being influenced by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and that homage continues into Pearl. The grotesque colours of the Texas homestead at the centre of the story recall the blood-red of Leatherface’s lair, while the alligator lurking in a nearby lake could come straight from Chainsaw director Tobe Hooper’s grubby 1976 movie Eaten Alive.
But the other clear homage in Pearl is to the optimism and glamour of classic Hollywood, including the colour-drenched fantasy of The Wizard Of Oz. Goth’s protagonist is as much a determined young ingenue – “one day, the whole world’s gonna know my name,” she naively promises – as she is an axe-wielding slasher villain. Admittedly, there aren’t any versions of A Star Is Born in which the main character butchers a goose with a pitchfork. Not that I can remember, anyway.
West has always been a very patient filmmaker, as any viewer of his slow-burn 2011 chiller The Innkeepers can attest. He brings that methodical approach to Pearl, which spends plenty of time following Goth through Pearl’s miserable milieu before the blades start swinging.
This isn’t a film that aims to make audiences sympathise with its murdering main character, but it does seek to contextualise the violent actions of the elderly woman we saw in X. By the time the blood starts splattering, it feels completely and sadly inevitable. It’s not the cathartic brutality of a woman fighting back against the world, but the murderous point of no return for someone whose path always seemed to be heading this way.
Ultimately, Pearl exists primarily as a savage and silly showcase for the utterly luminous Goth, who sinks her acting teeth into the myriad tones and vibes of the character as the film shifts and metamorphoses around her. Crucially, the third act pay-off isn’t necessarily a bloodbath – though there’s plenty of crimson flowing – but a devastating monologue in which Pearl lays out the horrors that have led her to now and the hope she still nurses for her future. In Goth’s hands, it’s as heartbreaking as it is chilling.
By the time that final facial expression fills the screen, we know every wound behind the facade – to herself and to the unfortunate folks currently working their way through an alligator’s stomach. West has constructed a horror movie as pure character study, anchored by a performance that cements its leading lady as a modern star of the horror genre. Or, as Pearl would put it: one day, the whole world’s gonna know her name.
Pearl is in cinemas on 17th March.
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