Ti West loves movies. It is why he is able to create something as striking and unique as Pearl, a mash-up of Douglas Sirk melodrama with gory horror kills and thrills. Pearl is a prequel to his other great horror movie from 2022, X. While that film played with the slasher subgenre, Pearl's references are deeper. Think Wizard of Oz where instead of singing and dancing, there is screaming and axe-swinging.
It was recently announced that West will continue with a third film in the series, MaXXXine. Bring it on I say. Pearl is a bloody but tragic story of a sexually repressed, attention-starved girl trapped on a farm. Mia Goth gives one of the year's best performances here. West is a clever writer and he knows what to mine from Pearl's history, subsequently deepening the pain and motivation of X. Both films paint a picture of suppressed desires that mutate into carnal violence. Co-written by Goth, Pearl is as much a character portrait as it is a lurid horror film. To put it simply, the film is fun but substantial.
Aesthetically, Pearl is very different from X. West trades out the grimy, Texas Chainsaw Massacre look of the later 70s for a technicolor burst of vibrance, set at the end of World War I, in 1918. Pearl wants to flee the dull life on her family's Texas farm. She dreams of being a dancer, often daydreaming while performing in front of the farm animals. Her mother (Tandi Wright) is oppressive, believing there should be no fun in life. "Life is about making the most of what you have," she tells Pearl early on. Pearl's husband Howard is off at the war and her father (Matthew Sunderland) is wheelchair-bound due to the pandemic going on. West slyly ties today's pandemic into the setting details here.
Pearl's obsession with the big screen begins to blur the boundary between what is real and what is her dream. Early on there are signs of what Pearl will become, the way she baths in front of her father or kills a goose to feed to the alligator in a nearby lake. As Pearl sets out to be a star when she hears of a dance audition coming to town, she has no ability to reconcile her expectations. This leads her down a deadly path of regret and jealousy.
Goth's portrayal of Pearl is stunning, switching from a wide-eyed farm girl to a menacing murderer. It is a performance that elicits fear and sorrow at the same time. West paces the film deliberately to match the style of the films he is evoking here. For some horror fans, it may start off too slow but the film is doing important work early on. This is a character-driven horror film, not a fast-paced slasher like X.
When Pearl is at its best, it is balancing sympathy for someone destined to become a vicious killer. Goth's committed performance sells the switching between fantasy and cruel reality. In one of the film's best scenes, Pearl is forced to accept the failure of her audition. It is both haunting and heartbreaking, sad and scary. While the film eventually explodes into a bloodbath, it does so with an emotional honesty rarely seen in horror.
While Pearl can be a bit uneven, it is a film of originality and vision. West's craft, from the surreal imagery to the costumes to the set design all help to elevate the film beyond its campy qualities.