American Goth-ic – Film review: Pearl ★★★★1/2

Attention gays! If you’re a fan of The Wizard Of Oz, Psycho, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, The Other, What’s The Matter With Helen?, and Who Slew Auntie Roo?, have I got a film for you! Ti West’s Pearl, the prequel to X, a slasher film about a production crew trying to make a porno on a 1970s rural Texas farm, incorporates elements of these aforementioned movies to bring us the gayest film of the year without a single gay character. It just oozes a gay sensibility so much, you’ll swear you ordered the Super-sized Hollywood Homosexual Combo Platter. It’s also one of the year’s best films and certainly features one of its greatest performances.

Mia Goth in Pearl. Courtesy of A24.

Mia Goth, who co-wrote with West, stars as Pearl, whom we met in X as an elderly woman. While not totally necessary to see X first, I’d recommend doing so. In 1918, Pearl lives on the same farm with her stern German mother (Tandi Wright) and her catatonic, disabled father (Matthew Sunderland). With her husband fighting in World War I and the influenza pandemic killing millions worldwide (relatable as hell), Pearl’s isolation seems exacerbated by these circumstances, perhaps heightening the psychosis already churning up towards the surface.

As seen from Pearl’s point of view, the film opens on a Technicolor, Searchers-esque dreamscape view of a farm as seen through a pair of opening barn doors. With a burst of reds and greens, and a score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams, which feels straight out of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, we watch Pearl talk to the animals as if she were Snow White. All seems beatific and perfect, until…well…without spoiling anything…it doesn’t.

Mia Goth and that poor Scarecrow in Pearl. Courtesy of A24.

Pearl wants to be the good girl, dutifully obeying her mother’s commands, tending to her father’s ever-increasing needs, and eagerly awaiting her husband’s return, but she also dreams of finding fame in Hollywood as a dancer. One day she meets the projectionist (David Corenswet) at the local cinema, who flirts with her and introduces her to the world of underground stag films. Perhaps a bridge to far, but also an excellent bridge to X, Pearl instead takes a more urgent interest in accompanying her sister-in-law Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro) to audition for a traveling church dance troupe. Either way, Pearl wants to escape her confines, feeling entitled to a life of fame and fortune she just knows Hollywood will bring. Her ambitions seem so strong, that anybody who gets in her way will certainly pay the price.

David Corenswet in Pearl. Courtesy of A24.

We’ve seen this hard luck Hollywood story countless times, and West and Goth know it, thus filling their movie with Easter eggs and references in almost every frame. It would make an excellent double feature with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, both exploring the dark inner worlds of Hollywood dreamers. Those expecting the Texas Chainsaw Massacre aesthetic of its predecessor may feel disappointed, but fret not, they will still get plenty of gore in the bloodiest of red palettes possible. Pearl is as much about the movies as it is about one’s desire to be in them, to be seen. It’s this need to be noticed, wanted, and desired which works its way across this film and X. I have no doubt this theme will carry across to MaXXXine, the third film in the West/Goth universe.

Even though it’s loaded with shocks, stunning cinematography by Eliot Rockett, perfect costumes and production design by Malgosia Turzanska and Tom Hammock respectively, a beautifully calibrated screenplay, and West directing in peak form, this film belongs to Goth. She swings for the fences with equal parts quiet empathy and furious outbursts, baring Pearl’s soul in every moment. Late in the film, she has a stunning single-take monologue in which you’re waiting to see the reaction of its recipient. West, however, holds back for an eternity, allowing the viewer to simply focus on Pearl and her candor. It’s as if West is saying, “I’m sorry, I’m not gonna let you look away. Take it all in!” As such, it’s one of the great cinematic gifts of 2022. Same goes for an extended end credits shot which will equal parts haunt and elate you for the rest of your days.

Mia Goth and Matthew Sunderland in Pearl. Courtesy of A24.

X and Pearl were shot back-to-back. Ostensibly, Goth fired off a first draft in a couple of weeks since the production was isolated in New Zealand during the COVID pandemic, perhaps starting as an exploration of her character’s backstory. In a perfect world, Pearl would be showered with major awards. Goth would stroll up to the stage of the Kodak next year, smiling perhaps a bit too intensely, and graciously accepting her Oscar. I know this is all in my head, perhaps a fever dream caused by my viewing this film. None of this is likely to occur, but nobody can deny the brilliant, shiny object known as Pearl.

By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic

Pearl opened in U.S. theaters September 16th.

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