‘Pearl’: Disturbed farm girl acts out in fantastically twisted prequel to the horror hit ‘X’
Mia Goth delivers an electrifying and truly scary performance as a dreamer who’s like Dorothy from ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ but homicidal.
Mia Goth frightens me.
Not the real-life British actress, as I’ve never met Ms. Goth and I’m sure she is a fine and lovely human being. I’m talking about Mia Goth in “Pearl,” in which she delivers an electrifying and truly scary performance as the title character in a fantastically twisted origins story about one of the more memorable psychopaths in recent movie history.
When Goth as Pearl plasters a frozen smile on her face and her eyes go wide, her expression is reminiscent of Anthony Perkins at the end of “Psycho” or Sissy Spacek during the prom scene carnage in “Carrie.” She’s looking at us, she’s looking through us, she’s seeing things in her mind we don’t really want to know about.
Just six months ago, Ti West delivered a raunchy, gritty and genuinely terrifying “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” tribute with “X,” which was set in 1979 and featured Goth in the dual roles as the young aspiring porn actress Maxine Minx and the creepy, salacious and bloodthirsty old Pearl, who along with her husband Howard is hell-bent on murdering Maxine and the cast and crew of the porn movie they’re shooting on the property belonging to Pearl and Howard. With “Pearl,” director West (who co-wrote the script with Goth) takes us all the way back to 1918 for the character’s origins story, which plays like a demented cross between “The Wizard of Oz,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” the aforementioned “Psycho” and “Joker.”
A24 presents a film directed by Ti West and written by West and Mia Goth. Rated R (for some strong violence, gore, strong sexual content and graphic nudity). Running time: 102 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.
Whereas so many films set in the World War I era feature sepia-toned or monochromatic visuals, director West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett infuse “Pearl” with rich and saturated Technicolor tones, with the sweeping orchestral score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams adding to the feeling of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. (There are some flights-of-imagination numbers as well that add to this unsettling juxtaposition of Hollywood fantasy and horror film.)
Zipping around on her bicycle, doing chores around the lonely family farm and even having quite the bizarre encounter with a scarecrow, young Pearl is like a bizarro version of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Unlike the wide-eyed optimist Dorothy, however, Pearl is clearly unhinged, as evidenced by her tendency to kill small animals for amusement, bathe in front of her infirm father (Matthew Sunderland) and talk to the voracious alligator in the nearby lake as if he’s an old buddy in a Disney movie.
Pearl is also deeply resentful of her lot in life. The Spanish flu is running rampant through the world, essentially placing Pearl on lockdown. She’s increasingly angry with her absentee husband Howard (Alistair Sewell), who is off fighting in the war abroad, and she’s forever clashing with her stern German immigrant mother (Tandi Wright), who hisses at Pearl, “Malevolence is festering inside you. I can see it, and I will not let you leave this farm again.”
Mom’s not wrong.
Nevertheless, Pearl does wander off the farm from time to time, chasing her delusional dreams of becoming a star. “One day the whole world’s gonna know my name,” she says, looking into the mirror. She loves escaping into the world of motion pictures at the movie theater in town, and she strikes up a relationship with the relatively sophisticated projectionist (David Corenswet), a handsome bounder who shows Pearl a crude, European-made stag film and seduces Pearl with lofty tales of the great big world out there.
When Pearl’s only friend, her bubbly and kind sister-in-law Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro), tells her about local tryouts for a traveling dance troupe, Pearl believes this will be her big break — but as quickly becomes apparent in a disturbingly wacko audition performance that plays like a dark carnival version of “Flashdance,” Pearl is going nowhere fast, and let’s just say when Pearl feels let down or disappointed or betrayed, someone’s going to pay the price.
“Pearl” isn’t really about the jump scares and tropes we see in so many horror films. It’s more of a case study of a disturbed mind going completely off the rails, filled with ghastly images (you can imagine what happens to a roast pig left on the porch for days) and exquisitely constructed tension-build moments, as when poor Misty tries to offer words of comfort and encouragement to Pearl, and slowly begins to realize her sister-in-law is NOT well, and Misty needs to figure out a way to leave the farmhouse as quickly as possible.
(This is that relatively rare film in this genre where the supporting characters feel like fully dimensional people. Even Pearl’s cruel mother has a moment where she laments how this is not how she envisioned her life turning out when she was young and in love with Pearl’s father.)
With Mia Goth’s brilliant work carrying the brunt of the load, “Pearl” is one of the most effectively unsettling movies of the year.