Watching the trailers before the main feature, it’s clear that there’s a velvet-lined casket-full of horror movies ambling towards their release date as Halloween approaches. ‘Pearl’ has been out a couple of weeks and so is getting a (decapitated) head start, and what a high bar it sets for this year’s crop.
This is a prequel/origin story for a movie I have not seen, but one that was shot back-to-back with Pearl. ‘X’ was released last year, also directed by Ti West and also starring Mia Goth as Pearl. I don’t know what happens in ‘X’, but I’m sure as hiccups going to watch it today. It doesn’t matter if you haven't seen 'X'', Pearl is a gore-soaked gem in its own right, and completely self-contained.
We join Pearl (Mia Goth), a young wife, living on a remote farm with her incapacitated father, her incredibly stern mother, and with her husband away at war. She has dreams of being famous, has horrendously low self esteem thanks to media portrayals of beauty and there’s a pandemic killing everyone. Is the year 2020? No, it’s 1918, World War I is ending and The Spanish Flu is decimating the population.
All Pearl wants is to be a dancing girl on the silver screen, and she performs Disney-esque song and dance routines around the farmyard but hey, wait a minute, the animals sure seem to be disappearing, and the tension with her parents is ramping up pretty intensely, and she does have a crazed look in her eyes whenever she talks about escaping...
Ti Wests’ color palette and general ambience are reminiscent of the nostalgic, technicolor saturation of, say, The Wizard of Oz. There’s also a scarecrow in this movie, though given how Pearl uses him to satiate her desires, I’d say a brain was the last thing he was in need of. As Pearl schemes and her hostility levels rise due to her many frustrations, having to bathe her dad and do endless chores for her mother and the like, the walls close in and shadows lengthen. The movie flits between rose-tinted panoramas and creepy expressionism.
A bohemian cinema projectionist at the local cinema fuels her erotic and professional yearnings with big talk of performing in Europe, and her brother’s wife tells her about a dance audition that’s coming to town. Pearl gets increasingly febrile about these possibilities and the conflict with her mother, a dour German who preaches sacrifice and familial devotion, reaches boiling point. The pastoral idyll becomes a bloody playground. We’re definitely not in Kansas any more, Toto.
Mia Goth is an irresistibly charismatic cinematic presence, and toward the end, she pulls off an incredible, one-take monologue that teases out your sympathies almost against your will. She expertly spins from wide-eyed, country ingenue to a hysterical killer, foaming at the mouth, almost on a dime.
Ti West’s direction is about as nuanced as you might get in what’s basically a slasher film, the contrast between the comforting hues of the landscape and the bloody violence working to great effect. There are some genuinely funny moments thanks to some deft self awareness. Tandi Wright, who learned German so well for the role of Pearl’s mother that she fooled two German crew members, also deserves plaudits for her Teutonic, Norma Bates-esque matriarch, the perfect foil for Pearl’s rage.
There’s a terrifying moment when the ambition that was keeping Pearl from succumbing to her worst tendencies evaporates. “It’s not about what I want any more, it’s about making the most of what I have,” she says. It’s at that point that you know all bets are off, and that you’ll definitely be interested in what Pearl does next. (PO)
Pearl is currently playing at the Prytania Canal Place
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