Tuesday, November 22, 2022


Director: Ti West
Starring: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro, Alistair Sewell
Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: R  

★★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

The best advice to give someone before watching Ti West's Pearl is not to see its prequel, X, first. Or maybe even at all. That won't happen since those most interested in this already did, eager to analyze the connective tissue between the two films. But there's little crossover, as it's sometimes tough to believe it was even made by the same person. Anyone lucky enough to know nothing going in wouldn't categorize it as a horror prequel at all, far transcending its slasher label to paint a psychologically unnerving portrait of a troubled young woman on the brink of emotional collapse. Featuring a brilliantly disturbing performance from Mia Goth as the younger version of the murderous octogenarian character she played in X, this operates on an entirely different level, replacing that film's gore and gruesomeness with suspense and heartbreak. 

If we already knew West had the talent, it's never quite come together for him like this, finding aesthetic inspiration in golden age cinema classics like The Wizard of Oz while still creating a singular, genre blurring vision that stands as an anomaly in the current movie landscape. Recreating the 1918 era in which this takes place with a vibrant technicolor presentation that confirms we're not in Kansas anymore, this film's version of Dorothy desperately aspires to escape her suffocating home life to become a star. And in depicting a surprisingly relevant world not so far removed from our own, West injects the material with a depth and complexity that's brought to life by Goth's staggering turn. The film belongs entirely to her, as Pearl's giddy, wide-eyed exuberance gives way to unbridled madness and bloodshed.

It's 1918 during the influenza pandemic and Pearl (Goth) is living with her German immigrant mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) and paralyzed father (Matthew Sunderland) on their Texas farm while husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) serves overseas in World War I. With Pearl's father wheelchair bound, the controlling, domineering Ruth has her taking care of him and the farm, but she yearns to escape for the bright lights of Hollywood. Depressed but hopeful for the future, she becomes entranced by the films she sees at the local cinema, befriending the theater's young projectionist (David Corenswet), who takes an immediate interest in her. 

Aspiring to become a chorus girl, Pearl hears from sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) of a church audition being held to find new dancers for a traveling troupe. Potentially seeing this as the big break, she pins all her hopes and dreams on winning, even as her behavior becomes disturbingly erratic. Between Howard's absence and insurmountable pressure to conform to her mother's ways, a mentally unhinged Pearl reaches a breaking point, with those closest to her about to discover just how dangerous she can be.

While it seems as if every other release these days centers around the impact of formative moviegoing experiences, West actually uses this familiar trope for a renewed creative purpose. Aside from cinematographer and frequent West collaborator Eliot Rockett invoking the MGM-era technicolor classics in perfecting the film's bright, gaudy look, Pearl's celluloid obsessions undoubtedly play a role in sending her further into her own head, which is a perilous place to be. 

Seeing the verbal abuse her tyrannical mother unleashes at seemingly minor indiscretions engenders a certain degree of sympathy for an outwardly sweet, goofy and often jubilant young woman. Desperately longing to get out from under her mom's iron fist, the desire to get into pictures becomes that escape hatch as Goth gradually peels back the layers to reveal how Pearl's issues cut far deeper. Calling back to one of X's major themes, she hears the clock ticking, as the fear of time passing without realizing her dreams becomes an all consuming obsession. 

If killing animals or doing the unspeakable with a scarecrow weren't already red flags, Pearl's admission that she can't wait until her parents die feels like a turning point and the moment that inside voice takes over, terrifying those who thought they knew her. To varying extents, the projectionist, Mitsy, and even her infirm, unresponsive father begin gradually waking up to this reality, albeit entirely too late.

West patiently builds to her breakdown, with many of the most thrilling, suspenseful scenes having little to do with violence, but the characters' reactions to Pearl's words and her reaction to them. She's hurt and bewildered by their responses in a way that far surpasses any surprise or remorse in herself that she said it. And as an uncontrollable Pearl's behavior becomes more theatrical, these exchanges increase in prevalence and intensity, culminating in her uncomfortably cringe worthy audition, which has a fallout even more tragic than anticipated.

Goth's now infamous eight-minute monologue is built entirely around that very conceit, as Pearl lays bare all her insecurities, crimes, and darkest thoughts for an initially willing listener who gets more than they ever bargained for in volunteering to play armchair therapist. The actress takes us on an unpredictable, emotional ride, investing Pearl with a naivety that only faintly acknowledges the heinousness of her actions. But being honest doesn't necessarily mean she grasps what that truth actually means, and by the time she does, it's too late for the unfortunate soul who sat there and listened to it. If in X it seemed as if Goth channeling Shelley Duvall then that observation holds much truer here in appearance, presence and delivery, reimagining Olive Oyl as an ax wielding sociopath.

The eventual slashings actually mean something due to the empathy Goth elicits for the character, and despite the film's playfully wicked sense of humor, West takes the smiling Pearl seriously, firmly distinguishing this from X's winking, tongue-in-cheek Texas Chainsaw tribute. After watching this it's hard not to wonder if that would play any differently now on a rewatch, even with this succeeding entirely as a standalone. 

By setting it in a period plagued with fear, isolation and financial instability, West also manages to make a pandemic movie without directly making one, cleverly utilizing the 1918 Spanish flu and World War I as anxiety-fueled triggers that only add to an already present sense of impending doom. And it maintains that momentum throughout, punctuated by a memorable closing credits sequence you won't be able to look away from or shake off.

Much has been made about what an incredible year it's been for horror, and while that's true, categorizing Pearl as strictly that almost sells it short, implying its strengths are limited to only a narrow, specific category. But even amidst a crowded pack of elevated horror entries, it earns its place toward the top, with 2019's Midsommar as its only viable competition. A psychological thriller before all else, certain biases will likely prevent the film and Goth from getting some much deserved attention and accolades. But for adventurous audiences who appreciate the shockingly unique and bizarre, that won't make a bit of difference at all.               

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