Director: Ti West
Writer: Ti West
Stars: Mia Goth, David Corenset, Emma Jenkins-Purro
Synopsis: Backstory on how Pearl became the person she was
The second film released by Ti West starring Mia Goth this year, Pearl, is the prequel to X, and tells the story of Pearl, a young country girl who would do anything to leave her life on the farm behind. With a groundbreaking performance from Mia Goth, and a passion for the genre that comes through in every frame, West’s latest is a fantastic genre film that will inspire filmmakers to come.
From its opening moments, Pearl reveals itself to be a love letter to the Hollywood films of old. Its setting, Southern accents, opening credits font, and long shots are evocative of films likeThe Wizard of Oz. Even Pearl’s own character motivations mirror that of Dorothy, as she talks to animals about how she can’t wait to leave the farm. These moments are immediately juxtaposed by the horror spin of Pearl, with violence seeming to lurk around every corner.
It’s West’s complete commitment to the setting of Pearl that enables it to stand out as one of the great horror flicks of the year. It’s not just Tom Hammock’s production design and Ben Milsom’s art direction that transport this film back to the 1930s era of Hollywood filmmaking. The screenplay by Ti West furthers this narrative, and all the performers speak in the cadence typically associated with 30s films. Eliot Rockett’s cinematography furthers this style of filmmaking, through the wide panoramic shots, and the usage of deep focus cinematography. Shots are blocked in such a way as to keep the camera from moving as much as possible, to further the illusion that Pearl truly is a golden age, technicolor film. West’s understanding of cinematic language is on full display, and it works in perfect tandem with his horror aesthetics. When the language changes even slightly, it signals to the audience that something isn’t right. And that shines through in the outbursts of violence, which utilize camera movements, image superimposition, and cross-cutting. It’s stylized to the max, sincerely leaning into the artifice of its story completely to make an engaging experience.
This is to say nothing of Mia Goths’ performance in the role of Pearl. Goth truly has cemented herself as the horror actress of a generation, through her complete dedication to the unsettling titular character. Her ability to switch from a hopeful, naive farm girl to a terrifying horror monster is unlike anyone else. She compartmentalizes the opposing sides of Pearl’s life, and gives each half a powerful portrayal that enhances the film tremendously. The supporting cast all play off of Goth wonderfully too, adding in their own shock, terror, and anxiety as they become aware of who Pearl has become. Tandy Wright’s role as Pearl’s mother is particularly memorable, due to her jaded performance. The emotions are kept to a minimum until it all breaks apart, and that change in tempo propels the story forward in a horrifying way.
The story, however, falls into its own pitfalls as a standalone film. Pearl may be a prequel to X, but its own ideas may rely too heavily on what was already said in X. There are a great many themes that come out of telling a story of rejection, especially when it regards filmmaking and show business. The character of Pearl wrestles with her own identity and desires, and the feeling of being trapped throughout the film. These are the basics of Golden Age storytelling. And the horror twist adds a tragic element to this tried and true story that has been told for generations. Yet it doesn’t completely work. This film’s structure, and its golden age tropes, establish Pearl as a sympathetic character, and it leads viewers not familiar with X to see her as a main character that has a journey of discovery ahead of her. While these ideas are refuted by the film’s ending, its harsh and abrupt nature leaves a confusion in its wake. It’s shocking and horrific, and for those unfamiliar with X, souring. Pearl is a masterclass of horror filmmaking with a powerful ending, but it relies on a familiarity with the franchise that holds it back.