Pearl: the gory gift that keeps on giving

Hot on the heels of X, released earlier this year, comes its prequel – a smart, sharp affair that proves there’s still plenty of blood in the veins of this rather novel franchise.

Mia Goth as the eponymous character in Pearl (2022)
  • Reviewed at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

One tour de force deserves another. After stealthily inhabiting two roles earlier this year in Ti West’s nasty, self-reflexive slasher X, Mia Goth takes a well-deserved victory lap in the concurrently shot prequel Pearl. The fact of the two movies’ twinned productions is significant: in a moment when the handlers of virtually every major horror property keep churning out cynical, faux-magisterial ‘legacy’ instalments predicated on the passage of offscreen time, the idea of a kind of impromptu, minute-rice genre franchise diegetically spanning five decades is intrinsically witty. Thankfully, West and his leading-lady-turned-co-writer have embarked upon their act of backstory-cum-brand-extension with a conjoined sense of formal playfulness and black humour.

When last we saw Goth’s Pearl, she was in her eighties, clad in a nightdress and channelling a lifetime’s worth of lonely, murderous rage against the cast and crew of a skin flick shooting in and around her and her husband’s remote Texas farmhouse. The up-top, easy-to-spot thesis of X was that horror and sex have always been two-sides of the same exploitation-movie coin – a dialectic rammed home by the late-70s setting and aesthetic. But the gimmick, hidden in plain sight, was that the sallow, faded, vengeful Pearl and the perky, defiant, would-be porn star Maxine were distorted mirror images, each drawn towards the other by some uncanny feeling of recognition. Goth’s wonderfully modulated dual performance, much of it delivered face-to-face opposite herself, sold the concept and its embedded notes of existential and biological anxiety beautifully; if it’s possible for a movie to be at once humane and tasteless, West threw his ten-gallon hat in the ring.

What became clear as X went on (intermittently undermining its own suspense-machine mechanisms with digressions into the killers’ domestic dynamics) was that Pearl was suffering from an anguished, alienated relationship to her own sexuality. It isn’t long before the movie bearing her name – set in the same farmhouse circa 1918 – sets up its own sleazy, explanatory version of a primal scene. Dressed more than a little like Dorothy Gale and dreaming of an escape somewhere over the rainbow – like maybe her small town’s movie house, with its imported French chorus-line quickies – Pearl passes through a cornfield and, with nobody around to judge her, aggressively dry-humps the resident scarecrow.

If she only had a man! Pearl’s young husband Howard (a name that will ring a bell for X fans) is off fighting for his country at the Western front – risking his neck against the same Germans with whom Pearl’s hard-working mother (Tandi Wright) and invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) claim a shared heritage. Dutifully underlining the wartime setting and tossing off farm-Gothic plot clichés like a filmmaker in a good-natured hurry to get to the gory stuff, West establishes that Mom is overbearing and even violently jealous of the only-child daughter who wishes to fly the proverbial coop. There’s also a louche local projectionist (David Corenswet) who’s just indulgent enough to get Pearl’s (though not our) hopes up, and a big dance audition to serve as a crucible for our girl’s increasingly megalomaniacal showgirl fantasies.

Because we know that the character is going to one day grow up – and shrink down – into a woebegone Mrs. Bates figure, the suspense lies less in whether Pearl is eventually going to take some of the omnipresent, sharply pronged farm implements scattered about and use them on the people around her (even the nice ones) than exactly how West and Goth are going to render the details of her psychic break. The answer comes in the form of an old-fashioned, bravura one-take monologue that may as well have ‘for your consideration’ superimposed underneath. Rightly so: Goth’s got the kind of elastic facial features that contain multitudes. Her porcelain complexion flashes deep crimson on cue, and when her wide, staring eyes go blank, it’s like somebody flipped the wrong breaker in the basement of her brain. What she manages in Pearl’s moment of truth is to get inside a character coming to terms with her own unsalvageable strangeness, and compelling us to respect and even root for her sociopathic self-actualisation. If it’s ultimately hard to tell how seriously West means for us to take everything in Pearl, Goth’s accomplishments aren’t easily laughed off.

Pearl is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.