'Pearl': Mia Goth Gives a Tour de Force Performance in Ti West's Technicolor Nightmare
When I watched Ti West's film X earlier this year, I was surprised by the post-credits scene, which was the first trailer for his next film, Pearl, a prequel to X. This had not been announced prior to the film's release, so no one was expecting him to make another film in the same universe as X. I was definitely curious to see what West would deliver with Pearl, both because it is a prequel and that it adopts a different cinematic style. While X took on a gritty, grindhouse-esque style, akin to exploitation films of the 70s, Pearl is more of an homage to Old Hollywood, complete with a Technicolor aesthetic and a heightened, almost melodramatic feel to it. It's definitely a bit of a departure for Ti West, as much of it is different from his other work, but he proves himself to be up to the task, and crafts a disturbing, yet engrossing film that builds quite nicely upon what he started with X.
Pearl takes place in 1918, nearly 60 years before the events of X. We follow Pearl (played by Mia Goth) a young woman who dreams of leaving her family's farm in pursuit of a career as a dancer. However, she faces opposition from her mother, Ruth (played by Tandi Wright) who insists that she stays to help with the farm and take care of her disabled father (played by Matthew Sunderland). As the film progresses, we see Pearl's darker side slowly rise to the surface, and see just how far she is willing to go to follow her dreams.
What I find so striking about Pearl is how it manages to fit into the world that Ti West has created, while also being its own thing in terms of style. It is clearly influenced by Old Hollywood films, borrowing some cues from The Wizard of Oz, Douglas Sirk, and various musicals of the era. This is primarily in terms of its visual palette, but certain plot elements, namely Pearl's quest for fame, does feel reminiscent of other films from the early days of Hollywood. Of course, this is a horror film at heart, but the film isn't quite the slasher that some might be expecting. I would argue that the film is much more psychological in nature, as we spend much of the film with Pearl, and explore her psyche throughout it. Yes, there are some bloody moments, but most of the film's horror come from the unsettling atmosphere that West creates. Seeing Pearl's actions becoming more and more depraved, as well as specific visuals and plot elements give the film a foreboding vibe, which complements the sunnier color palette in a stunning way. A lot of credit is due to Eliot Rockett, who served as the Director of Photography on this film. He is able to do some beautiful things with the camera in this film, while also capturing the more shocking and grotesque visuals in all their glory.
One of my biggest complaints with X is how is feels a bit unfocused in terms of its overall narrative, and has a lot of extraneous details, as well as some plot points that are left open. However, Pearl is much more succinct, and is rather straightforward in its overall plot. It makes sense considering that the narrative scope of this film is much smaller, and centers almost entirely on one character, but I still appreciated it, nonetheless. A lot of horror movies feel the need to be overly convoluted, so its nice to see something that is relatively simple, yet still delivers on being a solid horror film. With Pearl specifically, it allows West to hone in on the atmospheric elements of the film, and stretch himself a director a little. In some ways, he shows restraint, particularly with the film's big kills, and allows the reality of Pearl's actions and desires to sink in. It also allows the film's themes of repression and fame to come across loud and clear, and allows the viewer to draw some interesting parallels between how they are explored in this film and how they are explored in X. While I appreciate a lot of what West accomplishes in X, I feel that what he does here might be a tad more effective, and connected with me a little better.
Of course, the star of the show is Mia Goth, who is just fantastic in this film. Goth was the clear standout from X, and this film is an even bigger showcase for her. She is so dialed into the character of Pearl, and it is clear that her and West spent a lot of time establishing the final details of her character. The two share a screenwriting credit, so while West may have had the original idea for the film, it is clear that Goth played a big role in fleshing out the character. It helps that she has an innate ability to imbue her characters with humanity, which allows Pearl's more extreme moments to feel a bit more grounded. As a result, Pearl feels more three-dimensional and even if Goth is going big at times, it never feels too over the top. While she is great throughout the whole film, it's her work in the film's final act that solidifies this as one of the best horror performances of the past few years. She has a massive five minute monologue near the end of the film that is a major highlight, and absolutely floored me. In addition, she has several reaction shots that are so perfectly used, and show just how expressive of an actor she can be. Beyond all this, she brings such a great balance to the character, playing both the naive qualities and the manic qualities of Pearl with specificity and understanding. It's easily her best performance to date, and shows just how much she is capable of as an actor.
The film's supporting cast is also pretty good, even if they don't have quite as much to do in the film as a whole. Tandi Wright is great as Pearl's mother, Ruth, and adds some depth to what could have been a thankless role. She has such an authoritative demeanor when she's on screen, and her scenes with Goth are excellent. The difference in energies between the two clash beautifully, and leads to some electric moments between them. I was also quite impressed by Matthew Sunderland, who plays Pearl's Father. His character is paralyzed and unable to take care of himself, and he is able to play this role with pathos and care. David Corenswet is quite good as The Projectionist, a young man that Pearl takes a liking to. He represents the world beyond the farm for Pearl, and while he may not be the deepest or most interesting character in the film, Corenswet does give him a little more personality and plays off Goth well.
Pearl is a deeply unsettling film, but there is also something so alluring about it. Perhaps it's the bright color palette, or Goth's incredible performance, or something else, but whatever it is, this film truly impressed me. It's rather fun and exciting, while also being a disturbing look into the mind of the main character. On top of that, it serves as a loving homage to classic cinema, and beautifully expands the world that Ti West created in X. This film will definitely be off-putting to some, but I admired the blend of beauty and terror that West and Goth deliver here. It's such a unique film that really struck a chord with me, and is easily one my favorite horror films of the year. Ti West is slowly becoming a filmmaker that I truly appreciate, and with the announcement that his next film will be a sequel to X titled MaXXXine, I am very excited to see what he has in mind for this series. As for Pearl, this is a fascinating horror film that truly disturbed me, and is an excellent showcase for both Ti West and Mia Goth.