Us Brits (well, those without a VPN) may have had to wait much longer than our American cousins, but Pearl is finally here. The prequel to X, once again directed by Ti West, who once again worked in close collaboration with his main star, Mia Goth, this is an intriguingly different beast from the enjoyable film that came before it. Is it any good though?
The short answer is yes.
Goth plays the titular Pearl, a young woman who is struggling with her life. She's stuck on a small farm with her parents, the man she loves is serving in the military during wartime, and she starts to become obsessed with the idea of becoming a star. It can be good to have a dream, but it's not long until Pearl starts to struggle with her grip on reality. And that can make things perilous for those around her.
While X was, superficially anyway, looking to evoke the simplistic tropes of films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and a number of slashers from the 1970s and 1980s, Pearl immediately welcomes viewers into a completely different movie realm, the grand technicolor melodrama of Douglas Sirk. Or maybe even The Wizard Of Oz. Or Blue Velvet, itself an amalgamation of the same key texts underpinned by similar darkness and subversion. The fact that it compares favourably to those films is a remarkable achievement, and a testament to how committed West and Goth are, both to the development of the central character and the story beats that have now been planned throughout a trilogy (MaXXXine will hopefully be released by the end of this year or the start of 2024).
As good as West does with the direction, he has once again given himself a major boost by allowing Goth to shine (ironic, considering the ambition of her character). Genre fans are used to seeing performances in genre films being completely overlooked by those who praise and reward great acting, but it's no exaggeration to say that Goth gives such an amazing performance here that her lack of any recognition during the main award season was, quite frankly, ridiculous. Goth is a fragile dolly, being toyed around by her own hyperactive psyche, and she has many outstanding moments, but the obvious highlight is a monologue in the third act that could easily sit alongside some of the greatest ever scenes in cinema. Tandi Wright and Matthew Sunderland play Pearl's parents, a very strict mother and seriously incapacitated and ill father, Emma Jenkins-Purro is her friend/sister-in-law, and the main men in her life are played by David Corenswet (a local projectionist showing magic and possible escape on the silver screen) and Alistair Sewell (the absent husband, Howard). Everyone does good work, and it helps that they are often used as ways in which Pearl sees aspects of her mind reflected back at her, in conversations and in expressions.
A wonderful score helps, created by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams, the period setting feels carefully constructed and maintained, and there is connective tissue between this and X that will satisfy viewers of that film while not distracting anyone who may somehow stumble across this one first.
Some people may be put off by the pacing, or even by the overall tone of Pearl, but I loved it. I liked X a LOT, which meant I was both excited and nervous for this next instalment. Thankfully, this is an even better film. In an ideal world, Goth would have been in the same conversation this/last year as Michelle Yeoh, Cate Blanchett, et al. But we don’t live in an idea world. Thankfully, we do live in a world that occasionally gives us genre movies as good as this. And there’s always plenty of time yet for “the snobs” to eventually acknowledge how talented Goth is.
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