Earlier this year Ti West (House of the Devil) wowed horror fans with his subversive take on the slasher, X. Then West delivered a pleasant surprise with the announcement that he had secretly filmed a prequel to X that would release later this year. And now the prequel, Pearl, is in theaters with Mia Goth back playing a much younger version of the depraved farm matron. Critics are loving this one nearly as much as X, which bodes well for West’s last announcement about a planned sequel, MaXXXine.
As World War I nears its end and the Spanish Flu beings to spiral, young Pearl finds herself trapped in a soulless existence on the family farm. With her husband overseas, Pearl dreams of stardom as a dancer in the picture shows. But daily life disrupts these dreams as Pearl is forced to tend to the farm and care of her infirm father under the stern and watchful of her cold mother. But when Pearl learns about auditions for a local chorus girl production she sees a chance to escape the farm. And she won’t let anyone get in the way of her dreams.
Pearl Contrasts Visual Grandeur with Psychological Horror to Disturbing Effect
From its opening scene, Pearl immediately sets apart from X and other horror movies with its visual style. Director Ti West adopts the sweeping technicolor and musical style of classic cinema. From its opening credits to its inspired – and largely imagined – chorus girl dance number, Pearl’s aesthetics are wholly contrasted with its increasingly disturbing story. West, who co-wrote the story with star Mia Goth, slowly unravels the title character over the thriller’s hour and 43 minute runtime. As a filmmaker, West has mastered the slow burn and, here, he intermittently reminds us of the dangers posed by his title character juxtaposed against the bright colors of the film’s backdrop. It’s this juxtaposition that makes the movie’s darker moments more disturbing.
A scene in a cornfield with one of the creepier looking scarecrows in movie history feels so sudden and unexpected that it may take audiences a second to process what happens.
Things start off somewhat slowly as Pearl impales a farm goose on the same pitchfork that plays a significant years later in X. But each subsequent step in Pearl’s unravelling becomes more depraved and unsettling. A scene in a cornfield with one of the creepier looking scarecrows in movie history feels so sudden and unexpected that it may take audiences a second to process what happens. West later milks almost unbearable tension from a scene at the edge of a dock with a very familiar alligator swimming in the lake. By the movie’s third act, West finally ramps up the violence starting with an unbearably tense dinner scene and a subsequent daytime moment that exploits audience expectations with a clever swerve on the POV shot. The casual manner in which West stages the final moments makes what you’re seeing even more disturbing.
Pearl Finds Mia Goth Acting On an Entirely Different Level
This time around Mia Goth only plays one character, but the results are no less impressive. In fact, Pearl finds Goth working at another level as she delivers a powerhouse performance. She’s in virtually every frame of the movie and dominates the screen whenever she’s present. As compared to X, Pearl invests more time investigating the psychological makeup of a character with dark tendencies who’s on the verge of breaking. While the screenplay helps by adding intriguing layers to the character, Goth breathes life into Pearl’s complexity. Her ability to alternate between almost childlike naivete and unchecked rage is what makes this movie terrifying. Her final monologue should draw Oscar nomination buzz.
…Pearl finds Goth working at another level as she delivers a powerhouse performance.
Most of Pearl hinges on Goth’s performance. But New Zealand actress Tandi Wright – playing Pearl’s stern immigrant mother Ruth – is quietly impressive. For most of the movie, Pearl requires Wright to maintain a cold veneer as a woman bottling up deep resentment. When she finally releases all her anger in a pivotal scene, however, it’s one of the thriller’s best moments. Only a handful of other actors are credited and their roles are largely to stand in for the audience and react to Pearl. Watching David Corenswet’s The Projectionist as he slowly realizes just how wrong ‘Pearl’ is
Pearl Avoids Prequel Problems to Stand As Its Own Disturbing Thriller
Somehow Ti West avoids most problems associated with prequels and crafts a uniquely disturbing horror movie that stands on its own. Whereas X was an intensely frightening horror movie with its share of jump scares, Pearl is more psychological horror intent on slowly unnerving its audience. Goth was exceptional in X but she’s just on another level here. West’s unique juxtaposition of an old technicolor visual style with shocking and contemporary graphic horror sets Pearl apart from anything you’ve seen in recent memory. When 2022 comes to a conclusion, West may have two efforts vying for ‘best horror movie of the year’.