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Pearl review (TIFF): Mia Goth carries the X prequel

Pearl review (TIFF): Pearl won't convert anyone who didn’t like X, but if you’re already on board, this horror movie is a great continuation

Pearl review

There have been many fruitful director-star partnerships throughout history. In genre cinema, there’s the likes of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, and Guillermo del Toro and Doug Jones.

Now there’s a new movie duo in town, as horror movie director Ti West has chosen Mia Goth as his new muse. Earlier this year, we had X, which was about a ’70s rag-tag film crew descending on a rural farm to shoot a porno and finding more than they bargained for.

Goth played both aspiring actress Maxine and the elderly antagonist Pearl – an astonishing display of her acting talents and extremely impressive make-up work. West then dropped the surprise announcement that prequel thriller movie Pearl would be coming out in the same year as X, an unusual move to be sure. And he’s just done it again by announcing that there will be a third movie called MaXXXine, which will follow Goth’s Maxine in the ’80s Los Angeles porn industry.

Pearl is set in 1918 when the last gasp of WWI was sputtering out in Europe, and people were also having to cope with a deadly flu pandemic. Pearl lives with her austere and strict German mother and invalid father on a farm, where she must spend all day helping out with chores.

She has married the farmhand Howard, hoping it would be her escape from the farm, but then he immediately goes to Europe to fight – which leaves her exactly where she started. Pearl is an aspiring actress and dancer and longs for nothing more than to be in a travelling show, or even better – in the movies.

As well as these dreams, Pearl has desires which come out via an incredibly funny-awkward scene involving a scarecrow and also in her being drawn to the handsome projectionist (David Corenswet) at the movie theatre in town. And as well as sexual desire, she also has violent impulses, which are revealed in an early scene where she murders a goose with a pitchfork and feeds it to the gator in the lake on the farm (this gator’s descendent will feature in X).

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Goth is an English actress who has appeared in Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and Claire Denis’ High Life. Her Southern drawl as Pearl is as far from a Jane Austen character as you can imagine. Goth brilliantly portrays the many different facets of Pearl – from a naive young dreamer with stars in her eyes to having a ruthless ambition that will lead her to do anything if it means she can escape the life she fears she will be trapped in forever.

West brilliantly pastiches the early days of Hollywood (more ’30s rather than ’10s, if we’re nit-picking), with a sumptuous orchestral score and opening titles that replicate classic films from the golden era.

Goth’s Pearl is very much styled to look like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, with her blue dungarees and ribbons in her hair echoing Judy Garland’s blue pinafore, and she cycles through cornfields that are clearly a stand-in for the Kansas scenes in Victor Fleming’s family movie. As things start to unravel for Pearl, and her actions become more murderous in order to fulfil her ambitions, she begins to transform from Dorothy into the Wicked Witch.

Pearl review

On the surface, Pearl is living the life of a Disney princess – dancing for the farm animals, who are all named after her favourite stars, or a ’50s comedy series in which the good little farmhouse wife waits for her husband to return from war. But Pearl will dispose of anything or anyone who foils her ambitions.

Her in-laws deliver a roast pig to Pearl’s mother, and they are barely getting by – her mother quibbles over eight cents that Pearl doesn’t come home with. But Pearl’s mother’s pride means the pig is left on the porch for the maggots to claim, rather than her accepting an act of charity. This will become integral to a hideous final tableau.

West is ambitious in addressing the pandemic (it is strange to see people with white cloth masks), as well as a war that seems very far away. One of the best scenes is Pearl’s dance audition at the local church for what she hopes will be a travelling show that will whisk her away and will be her ticket to Broadway or Hollywood.

Pearl review

It evolves into a fantasy sequence that incorporates the war and is followed by a monologue that Goth delivers to Howard’s sister (Emma Jenkins-Purro), which is utterly captivating. The camera stays close to Goth, not cutting to the sister, and you can feel that West knows that Goth is his greatest weapon. She is the centrifugal force at the centre of what will now be a trilogy, and you cannot tear your eyes away from her.

As he did with X, West is aping horror movies of past genres, as well as Hollywood more generally. Once Pearl starts to wield the pitchfork or axe, many classic horror villains will be invoked, although there may be complaints from horror fans that it’s not scary enough.

West’s influences are all over the map and will annoy people who want them to be more coherent or period appropriate. There’s even a little nod to the industry that Maxine will one day be a part of when the dashing projectionist shows Pearl a dirty European movie. West is having fun playing in a Hollywood sandbox and with the history of movie-making, and the result is a film that is colourful, funny, and entertaining.

Tandi Wright as Pearl’s mother, is an excellent support to Goth, and they share some electric scenes. But as stated, this is the Mia Goth Show, and she absolutely carries the film, something West acknowledges by lingering on her face for as long as possible in an incredible final shot. Pearl will probably not convert anyone who didn’t like X, but if you’re already on board, Pearl is a great continuation which will have fans hotly anticipating the trilogy rounding out with MaXXXine