Film Writer Alice Weltermann reviews Pearl, finding it a worthwhile watch with an excellent Mia Goth performance, despite some pacing issues
Before there was Maxine, there was Pearl; before there was Pearl, there was the alligator Theda (named after actress Theda Bara).
Ti West’s Pearl is a technicolour horror riot that delves into the complex psyche of X’s (2022) antagonist, the titular Pearl (Mia Goth). This film is not merely about her, but is her, every moment of it rich with sinister pantomimic intensity. West and Goth’s collaboration has led to a character exploration that forces the film’s horror element into secondary importance, making it an interesting prequel to its comparatively generic forerunner.
West and A24 worked hard to get the film out in the same year as X, repurposing a set that feels haunted already. Pearl does stand alone, however, and despite some pacing issues, it is certainly worth watching. The second part of a yet uncompleted trilogy sees Pearl attempting to achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a ‘star’, despite the hinderances of her family and setting.
Pearl’s vivid aesthetic by cinematographer Elliot Rockett at first conjures the nostalgic Disney feeling one associates with technicolour. Paired with Tim Williams and Tyler Bates’ sweeping score, we are quickly transported to a larger-than-life world. We see this place in Pearl’s gaze: a world so vibrant it hurts. The greens of the grass are so bright they seem nuclear, and the red of Pearl’s dress glows not like ruby slippers but like freshly spilt blood. This colour palette becomes harsher throughout the film, becoming (just as Pearl does) unrestrainedly abrasive.
And yet Pearl is not a clear-cut horror film- it is a departure from the slasher X, which is highly aware of its own genre and makes references to many influences such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining. Pearl occupies a strange generic space, made so by its intense focus on its titular character. Goth’s excellent performance allows for a portrait of a character that intrigues and evokes empathy despite her actions. Her eight-minute monologue is a testament to Goth’s skill- it is hard to tear your eyes away from this moment. It invites us into her skewed psychosis, one incredibly twisted but somehow relatable. Pearl’s problems are universal: her desire to be loved, for something better than the life she has, starts off as reasonable.
The vulnerability that leads to her violent activity is one thing that makes Pearl so sinister- she is really quite evil, yet altogether human. Moreover, considering the eerily familiar setting of the film at the end of the Spanish flu epidemic, her behaviours (both from the flu and by her overbearing mother) become more ominous.
Despite being set in 1918, the panicked fear that comes with disease is one we know well today as a result of COVID-19- a scene of Pearl in a face mask is a jumpscare in itself, imbuing the whole narrative with the hysteria that accompanies contagion. If Pearl’s isolation has impacted her violent habits, we are left wondering how sane we might be in a post-lockdown society. The background of WW1 adds to this, as we wait with Pearl for the return of her husband Howard- and with him normalcy.
Pearl excites and rivets, and delves into its killer’s psychology in new and interesting ways. However, it sometimes feels too contrived to function, and Pearl is hard to get on board with- as viewers, we are offered no distance from her psychology. Without any reprieve from Pearl, it can feel suffocating to be so tightly wrapped in the knotted wires of her brain. It is her film, but some moments need a break from her overpowering presence. As well as this, the film seems unsure about whether its kitschy elements are purposeful or not, leading to some moments that should be highly climactic coming off as funny. Hyperbolic by nature, sincere and campy tones intermingle in a confusing way. The film would benefit from slower and more careful pacing, with stronger direction when it comes to more tender moments.
Overall, you should watch Pearl if you like Mia Goth, alligators named Theda, the 1989 hit Heathers, scarecrows, war-related dance numbers or extramarital affairs. The third flick in the trilogy, the upcoming Maxxxine, is set to be released next year- hopefully, it will be just as riotous as Pearl, whilst maintaining the strong pacing and structure of X.
Pearl is available to pre-order on Amazon Prime now.
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