Pearl, a High-Wire Horror Prequel From Ti West

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Pearl, 2023
Pearl, 2023(Film still)

Following on from last year’s X, Pearl is the second in a horror trilogy from Ti West – a stylistic tour de force featuring Mia Goth that feels fresh and daring down to its final scene

Ti West is an undersung influence on the ‘prestige’ horror filmmakers of today. Introducing previously foreign concepts like pacing, atmosphere and style to the braindead 2000s scene with The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011), he paved the way for the genre’s renaissance even as his own career stuttered with an abortive Cabin in the Woods sequel and a slew of hired-gun TV gigs. Martin Scorsese is a fan, praising his work as “powered by a pure, undiluted love of cinema” that can be felt in every frame.

With Pearl, West stretches his talents in the service of something more ambitious: a demented origin story for the villain of his previous film, last year’s X, shot in the style of a lush 50s melodrama. It’s the second instalment in a planned trilogy of films starring Mia Goth, whose turn here as the titular antiheroine simply has to be seen to be believed: it has rightly earned her comparisons with some of the all-time great horror performances, from Shelley Duvall in The Shining to Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Oscars recognition, needless to say, was not forthcoming.

Goth plays Pearl, a Texan farmgirl with dreams of becoming a Hollywood star. Among the many factors conspiring against her are a God-given lack of talent, a comically dour mother in the life-is-pain Protestant mould, and a paralysed father who needs round-the-clock care at home. She also happens to be a raging psychopath, a fact that viewers of the first film, which saw Goth pull double-duty as an elderly Pearl and the young porn actress pitted against her, will already be familiar with.

X was a fine slasher flick made with tremendous assurance but Pearl is a different beast entirely, evoking the likes of Douglas Sirk and The Wizard of Oz as our hero cheerfully hacks, twirls and slashes her way through the story in technicolor hues that pop right out of the screen. This tonal mismatch creates a sense of basic wrongness that West exploits terrifically, as Goth/Pearl breaks through the veneer of bushy-tailed banality in a series of bizarre and bloody set pieces. Not to give too much away, but she’s already offed a goose and fucked a scarecrow before 30 minutes is up.

But, as much as Goth commits to bringing the crazy, the film’s real showstopping moment comes when Pearl delivers an extraordinary, tearful confession at the dinner table, leaving her friend in no doubt that her life is in serious jeopardy. West shoots the scene in a single take, Goth seeming to draw on some deep well of despondency and self-loathing as the depth of Pearl’s loneliness is revealed. It’s totally unexpected, lending the film emotional weight to anchor its playful experimentation.

Intriguingly, Pearl also offers a meta-commentary on the birth of the modern-day movie industry. The action unfurls as the first world war burns itself out across the ocean – Pearl is awaiting her husband’s return from the trenches – and the Spanish flu pandemic rages at home. Her mum draws dignity from a life of quiet self-effacement but Pearl wants more – wants to be seen, dammit – and through her, West attempts a kind of psychopathology of celebrity culture in its nascent form. All of which sounds a bit lofty but, really, Pearl is a blast from start to finish, a highwire provocation and stylistic tour de force that feels fresh and daring down to its last, painfully protracted shot.

Pearl is out in UK cinemas now.