Hannah Strong


Pearl – first-look review

Mia Goth reprises her role as a homicidal farm girl in Ti West's aesthetically pleasing but otherwise empty horror prequel.

Pearl (Mia Goth) wants to be a star. It’s all she’s ever dreamed of, but it’s a million miles away from the life she seems doomed to lead, on a rural farm where her miserly German mother (Tandi Wright) makes her work hard looking after their small collection of animals, as well as her disabled father (Matthew Sunderland) who is paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. Her mother has no time for Pearl’s daydreaming, least of all while there’s a war going on, and discourages Pearl’s flights of fancy at every opportunity.

Her closest friends are the farmyard critters she’s named after her favourite movie stars – and Theda, the crocodile who lives in the swamp behind their house – and Pearl performs her dance routines for them when her mother isn’t watching. She’s also friends with Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), the sister of her husband Howard, who’s currently away serving in World War One, and sweet Mitsy encourages Pearl’s ambition, as does Johnny (David Corenswet) the projectionist at the local picturehouse who meets Pearl after a screening of Palace Follies.

It’s Johnny who introduces Pearl to stag films, calling back to Ti West’s X, which inspired this prequel (which Mia Goth co-wrote with West) but her interest remains steadfastly in dancing on the stage or screen, and an upcoming audition presents Pearl with an opportunity. She’s not about to let anything – or anyone – stand in her way. To Goth’s credit, she gives a spirited, committed performance as Pearl, which isn’t easy considering the character is presented solely as ‘deluded’ with no deeper characteristics beyond her ambition and jealousy. Instead West is more interested in gags like Pearl simulating sex with a scarecrow or making Covid references disguised as mentions of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

There are engaging moments, such as Goth’s delivery of an unhinged monologue in which the camera focuses totally on her face, and the film’s final shot raises a smile, but West is proving to be a filmmaker who really likes to lead his audiences down the proverbial garden path; it takes a long time to get to any of the action. When it does come, the same tricks are largely repeated from X, which is a little underwhelming, and while that film was stacked with references to the films of the 1970s (in particular the burgeoning porn industry) Pearl pays homage to the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and George Cukor, while shooting in vivid technicolour that’s more reminscent of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. Given the 1918 setting that doesn’t quite make sense, but West is more about aesthetics than fully-formed ideas.

Although billed as a prequel to X, Pearl only really covers the beginning of the anti-heroine’s story – we don’t really learn how she came to be the bitter, twisted old woman who offs several sexy young folk, or why on earth her husband stayed with her all those years. But those who found something to like in the strangely sex-negative X might get something out of this. Or you could just watch an actually good film about ambition and obsession (Sunset Boulevard! Whatever Happened to Baby Jane!) instead.

Published 3 Sep 2022

Tags: Mia Goth Pearl Ti West

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