A deranged star aims to be born by any means necessary amongst paranoia and solitude in the second film of Ti West’s ‘X’ trilogy.
After almost six years away from feature filmmaking, writer/director Ti West returned to the horror genre this year with X, a terrifying and stylish slasher that saw a film crew in 1976 become unwelcome guests to the owners of a farmhouse when it becomes a set of a porno. His second film to come out in six months, Pearl, tells the origin story of the female half of said owners, and despite flaws in its execution, is a movie that remains twisted and captivating through a dedication to its filmmaking style and a phenomenal performance from Mia Goth.
Like X before it, Pearl takes place in rural Texas, only this time in the year 1918 just as World War I winds down and the Spanish flu pandemic heats up. In this period, Pearl is assisting her German immigrant and overprotective mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) in tending to the family farm, while her father (Matthew Sunderland) is bound to a wheelchair and her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) is away fighting in the war.
Pearl’s solitude has brought not only dreams of stardom in the world of entertainment to her mind, but also malicious thoughts toward everyone and everything around her. But she soon learns from her sister-in-law Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro) of a traveling stage show hosting a casting call in her hometown, and from there, plans to audition for and win the part that will save herself from her exile. But is Pearl beyond saving from her slippery slope toward madness?
Those who have seen West’s previous film know the answer to that question, and they’ll be the ones in the audience left wondering why his horror trilogy didn’t lead off with this film first. As a companion piece to X, viewers can already guess where the plot is going right when it starts, and West’s penchant for taking time to build his narratives with a slow burn all the way to their conclusion will test the patience of some moviegoers. Another issue is that the film is so committed to being a technicolor drama that it forgets about its elements of horror and fails to keep any tension or suspense going into its second act, only picking up until the third.
And yet, its dedication to crafting a horror movie in the style of a technicolor drama is what keeps Pearl a captivating experience for its runtime. The colors of Pearl’s dresses and the exteriors of her farm pop with high saturation, adding a sense of grand wonder to the cinematic spectacle while also giving off the illusion of perfection to passersby of her family’s home, further contrasting with the unease between Pearl and her mother under its roof.
Co-composers Tyler Bates and Tim Williams also contribute to the style of classical Hollywood with a sweeping and soaring orchestral score that not only accentuates Pearl’s longing to achieve her dreams, but also seems to follow her everywhere she goes, not unlike the dramas of old. Classic cinema aficionados will also appreciate West’s implementation of old school editing techniques to transition from scene to scene, from irises in and out to classic wipes from right of frame to left and vice versa.
But what carries Pearl across the finish line is its star and co-writer, Mia Goth. After breaking through with supporting roles in recent niche titles like A Cure For Wellness and Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria, Goth cemented herself as a scream queen working with West on X. Their work together here results in the best performance of Goth’s career thus far, which contributes more to her character than just a Southern accent. The character of Pearl is very well fleshed out in the script as the tragic result of an unfortunate combination of solitude’s lasting effects, in addition to generational trauma and fear of the outside world.
And that translates brilliantly from the page to the screen as Goth portrays her character’s madness with a natural, unnerving progression from private instances where Pearl indulges in a murderous activity with reserved delight all the way to a twisted climax that sees the levees of her mind break along with her voice, threading the needle between making Pearl sympathetic and horrifying all at once with tremendous success.
Goth is also hauntingly powerful when she balances theatrical delivery reminiscent of old technicolor melodramas with contemporary naturalism, such as when she takes a man she fancies to her farmhouse which ends in unfortunate results. What is fortunate, though, is that Pearl remains a flawed but solid entry in Ti West’s filmography, a decent second film into his trilogy, and a movie worth seeing for audiences to witness Mia Goth’s transition from scream queen to a pearl in the rough.