Ti West’s ‘X’ sequel features a stellar performance from Mia Goth in an engrossing character study
Dir: Ti West. US. 2022. 105 mins.
A horror spinoff that feels like both a lark and a serious attempt to dig deeper into a murderous character, Pearl is a terrific showcase for actress and cowriter Mia Goth, playing a young woman whose grip on her sanity is slipping fast. Ti West’s prequel to X, which opened back in March, moves away from that film’s slasher sensibility, pivoting to an engrossing study in strangeness that only belatedly delivers the kind of shocks one might expect — but when they do arrive, they’re more emotional than is often the case for this blood-soaked genre .This new instalment stands on its own unsettlingly odd merits.
A minor gem in its genre
Screening in Venice and Toronto — the latter festival programming the film in its Midnight Madness section — Pearl opens in the US on September 16. X grossed about $16 million worldwide on a tiny budget, with West shooting the followup in secret at the same time. No question Pearl will be a niche commercial proposition, but although familiarity with X will certainly help prospective audiences, viewers could go into the new film cold and still be sufficiently satisfied by its riveting portrait of insanity.
Taking place in 1918 — during another pandemic, the Spanish Flu — Pearl stars Goth as the title character, who was the principal antagonist in the 1979-set X. Living at home with her infirm father (Matthew Sunderland) and repressive, harshly critical mother (Tandi Wright), Pearl feels stranded, longing for her husband Howard, who is off fighting in the First World War. But once she becomes smitten with the handsome, unnamed projectionist at her local theatre (David Corenswet), she starts to dream of a life away from her small town; her aspirations bolstered by an upcoming open-call audition to be part of a traveling dance troupe.
X paid homage to 1970s horror classics, so much so that it was almost as if the film was some forgotten relic from the era. For Pearl, West has cited different cinematic reference points — specifically, live-action Disney family films such as Mary Poppins — and there’s a dark edge of satiric menace coursing through this prequel, which tonally sometimes seems to be hardwired to Pearl’s shaky mental state. Early on, it’s clear this woman is deeply disturbed — most people don’t make out with random scarecrows — but Pearl keeps viewers on edge as we slowly begin to recognise the extent of her delusions and frantic need to be loved.
West, who penned the screenplay with Goth, gives the proceedings a just-having-fun looseness without succumbing to smug self-indulgence. Although Pearl certainly enjoys gently lampooning the seeming gentility of early-20th-century Americana, there’s also a bit of a sting to the story. The parallels to our own paranoid pandemic age are obvious, but the picture’s sun-splashed imagery is often offset by the growing darkness swirling inside Pearl. Her closest friend, pretty blonde sister-in-law Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro), is such a positive person that she initially seems like someone who could pull Pearl back from the brink. Instead, Misty’s fate becomes one of the film’s most heartbreaking sequences, West’s deceptively simple staging belying the amount of craft that goes into the moment’s brutal outcome.
Goth resists horror-flick cliches while depicting Pearl’s building psychosis. There’s an internal logic to the character’s festering anguish, her despondency and rage all tied together in one wholly believable package. Whether delivering a cathartic monologue or performing a decidedly demented dance number, Goth keeps Pearl just grounded enough that when the inevitable killing spree begins, we understand what has driven her to it — even if some of her victims are undeserving of her wrath.It’s become de rigueur for actors to talk about being invested in making their villains “sympathetic”, but Goth indeed manages to turn Pearl into something of a tragic figure — a profoundly unhappy person desperate to become one of those stars she sees up on the silver screen, cursed never to know such fame and fortune.
Its ambitions small-scaled, Pearl nonetheless features some strong supporting turns, including newcomer Jenkins-Purro as rosy Misty, who realises too late how damaged Pearl really is. And Wright sinks her teeth into a prototypical tyrannical-mother role, giving our heroine plenty of reason to want to break free. On paper, this is just one more horror film about a tormented individual who finally snaps, but Pearl proves to be a minor gem in its genre.
Production company: Little Lamb
International sales: A24, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Kevin Turen, Harrison Kreiss, Jacob Jaffke, Ti West
Screenplay: Ti West & Mia Goth
Cinematography: Eliot Rockett
Production design: Tom Hammock
Editing: Ti West
Music: Tyler Bates, Tim Williams
Main cast: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro