Directed by Ti West
United States/Canada/New Zealand
Warning: Some spoilers.
Ti West’s Pearl is a prequel to his movie X, which I reviewed here. It stars Mia Goth as the title character who, of course, played a dual role in X, one which completely took me by surprise as the old age make-up and performance of Pearl completely hid the actress from my perceptions in that one. This one was written, from what I hear, in a two week quarantine break in New Zealand, before the shooting of X, co-written over computer by West and Goth together. My understanding is that parts of this production were shot simultaneously with this one too.
And, it’s completely brilliant and, once again, Mia Goth amazes me with the power of her performance. Those expecting a film similar to X in tone may find this one slightly jarring at first. Now, I don’t usually like American made slasher films with X being one of the rare exceptions and, while Pearl is also, in essence a slasher film... it’s not a traditional slasher and it’s more in the lines of something like Hitchcock’s Psycho than, say, the Halloween or Scream films.
If you’re expecting nudity and goriness of X level proportions then you are probably going to be disappointed. The only nudity in this one comes in the form of an early 20th century, silent stag loop (one you might well have seen before if you have any interest in vintage erotica) and while there are some scenes of gruesome violence, such as a split screen sequence near the end where Pearl performs her own clean up by dismembering the corpse of her sister in law (Emma Jenkins-Purro), it’s far less frequent than in the aforementioned X. Although, of course, the pauses between the scenes where Mia Goth’s title character goes from naive, not too bright farm girl to completely derailed and unhinged not too bright farm girl... are much more potent for their diminished frequency.
The film is set in 1918 and I believe the director wanted it to play out in black and white. Alas, A24 refused that idea and so the film veers in the other direction. Starting off with a similar shot towards the barn doors and out onto the farm, which lovers of X will remember, it actually swings into full on technicolour levels of image saturation and, coupled with a really wonderful score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams, it actually feels, sounds and looks (also helped along by the typography at the start) like a late 1940s/early 1950s movie... so the tone doesn’t seem quite right to the setting but, really, it does nothing to weaken the potency of the movie and the incredible performances at its centre.
We find out that Pearl has a domineering mother (Tandi Wright), a vegetable of a wheelchair bound, unresponsive father (Matthew Sunderland) and longs to leave the farm. Her husband is away fighting in the Great War and everyone is afraid of the Spanish Flu (indeed, people wear masks reminiscent of the start of the current Covid pandemic). Pearl is a dreamer and longs to escape and be a dancer in the movies, befriending and then later despatching the local town projectionist (David Corenswet). But we realise right from the start that Pearl is a little disturbed, as she pitchforks a goose and feeds it to a crocodile (or it could be an alligator, I barely know the difference).
As the film goes on, Pearl experiences more troubles and dwells on her horrible future... until her bouts of violent self expression become more frequent. But the movie still manages to be almost overwhelmingly entertaining as the stand out cinematography, the performances and the seductive, old Hollywood style soundtrack dazzle the viewer with their combined magnetism. Or at least, these elements pulled together certainly dazzled this viewer.
There’s the odd transition wipe on motion, the amazing split screen sequence which heralds in Pearl’s husband’s return home from the war and an amazing, held shot of Pearl’s face expressing a wealth of emotions behind her forced smile... not to mention a wonderful, stagey, song and dance number set against the trenches of the First World War.
My one disappointment came when the bohemian projectionist character, who shows the pornographic stag loop to Pearl in his projection room, referred to his job as a good ‘gig’. I checked it out after and found I was correct that this is an anachronism in the language, it would seem... as the term didn’t start to be used until the 1920s, at the very least two years after this movie is set. Or so I’m told.
However, it doesn’t really matter because Pearl is a truly entertaining motion picture and one which I will, of course, pick up on Blu Ray, along with X. I’m just waiting for the third installment in the trilogy, MaXXXine, to get a release and then, well, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a nice Blu Ray box set of all three packaged together. Also, this is a rare prequel these days in that, other than to spoil the surprise, perhaps, that Mia Goth also plays this character in X... this is a movie which could easily be watched before seeing X and it will probably enrich the experience of seeing that original. Or at least add even more tension when you realise, prematurely, just what Pearl is capable of. And that’s me done with this one. If you are into very focused, quite intense gothic thrillers or, indeed, liked the first movie... then you should have a pretty good time with Pearl, I would say. I can’t wait to see the third installment in this franchise, for sure.