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Pearl – Film Review

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pearl film poster
Pearl Film Review

More directors should make unexpected, immediate sequels to their movies. Straight off the back of filming X, director Ti West and lead actor Mia Goth set to work on Pearl. We can’t help but admire the confidence to make a sequel before knowing how the first film might be received. 

We should probably clarify that Pearl is more a prequel than sequel. Where X was set in 1979 and followed Mia Goth’s Maxine, Pearl is set in 1918, and is glued almost exclusively to Mia Goth’s Pearl. But both films are set on the same farmstead, and the character of Pearl is shared between them. We won’t dare reveal what role Pearl played in X, but suffice to say that you will want to know her origins by the end of X’s runtime. 

Pearl is a twenty-something girl with big dreams. She wants to become a dancer, as she pirouettes in the barn with the cows as her audience. Whenever she has a free moment, she pops into the local cinema to watch vaudeville dancers, imagining herself in their shoes. 

But there are significant obstacles to those dreams. She is a daughter of Dutch immigrants, and they are puritanical about what a young lady should or shouldn’t be doing. Her father is confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak and fearfully watching as his daughter argues with her mother. And Pearl’s mother, Ruth, believes that misery should be shared. If she has to stay home, manage the farm and look after her husband, then Pearl should too. 

This is all set against the backdrop of the First World War. Pearl’s husband is absent – she seems to have been married for only a few months before he swanned over to Europe – and a plague of some kind is sweeping the continent (mirroring the film’s production, which happened over lockdown). To soften the misery, a church group aims to create a touring group of dance girls, and Pearl sets her sights on winning an audition and joining them. 

Ti West absolutely loses himself in the period. Lesser filmmakers would have evoked the period through the costumes and cars and been done with it. Ti West soaks every frame with it, from the Technicolour credits and title cards, all the way to the mannered acting and the analogue sound design. At the start, it feels like an episode of I Love Lucy, digitally remastered in glorious colour, but you already know (thanks, X) that the injection of bright, lavish reds to the palette isn’t just for the lipstick. It might be on the heavy-handed side for some, but we loved it. 

It’s not long before creepiness blots the frame. Pearl has a habit of giving into sudden, wanton acts of violence. A goose wanders into her barn while she’s dancing with a pitchfork, and you can bet your bottom Mary Poppins dollar that the goose doesn’t join the dance number. Its impaled body is fed to a crocodile, as Pearl merrily hops and skips back to the homestead. It’s just the first of a series of impulsive acts that indicate that Pearl perhaps isn’t of an even mind. 

I will admit to not really understanding the internet’s fascination with Mia Goth in the lead-up to Pearl. She was fine if a little laconic in X, and I hadn’t seen enough of her in Infinity Pool or Emma to really appreciate what she does. But in Pearl the penny dropped. She is at her best when her character is collapsing, beaten by a world that won’t let her be what she wants to be. When she moves to extremes she’s magnetic, screaming at the judges of an audition or revealing all her secrets in a long, unbroken take at a dinner table. The term ‘Scream Queen’ is used as a pejorative nowadays, but she turns it entirely into a positive. She was made for the horror genre, and we can’t recall a better screamer in cinema. Maybe Shelley Duvall. 

The rest of the cast do a sterling job. Tandi Wright as Ruth, Pearl’s mother, is implacable. When she reveals that she knows more about Pearl than Pearl would want her to know, you can almost hear the scabbards fall off swords. Something terrible duly comes. Matthew Sunderland does so much with a twitch of an eye as Pearl’s father. It’s only David Corenswet – our upcoming Superman – who goes through the motions as a chisel-jawed projectionist. 

There’s a contemporariness to Pearl that comes through in the desperation for fame. The modern day need for exposure of any kind is present in Pearl, and makes it all too believable. It also manages to dodge the issue that fans of X will know much of the story already. Its vague outline was delivered in X, after all. But you know where Pearl is heading from the moment the goose gets swallowed up by that crocodile: the joy is watching Pearl going all-in on her dreams, knowing that there will be a very bloody shattering of them, somewhere down the line. 

If there’s a complaint, it’s that Pearl doesn’t quite have the ability to surprise that X and other Ti West films have. It’s more complete, and a richer, more rounded movie experience, but it also doesn’t scare or pull the rug from beneath that experience. It’s a building of tension towards an inevitable end, and that might leave thrill-seeking horror fans unsatisfied. To those people, there’s always the latest Insidious film at the cinemas.

Now, if Ti West can keep to a schedule of a horror movie every year, we will be very happy horror fans. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

SUMMARY

Pros:
  • Has huge amounts of fun with its period setting
  • Mia Goth is undoubtedly a star
  • Builds to a hopeless ending for its main character
  • Filmed in glorious technicolour
Cons:
  • Doesn’t manage to truly surprise
  • David Corenswet is a bit, well, wet
Info:
  • Purchased by TXH
  • Running time and release date - 1hr 42mins | 2022
  • To rent/buy - £no rent/$19.99 SD, HD, UHD

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SMM Panel
10 months ago

Thanks for your review. It was very helpful.

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<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>Has huge amounts of fun with its period setting</li> <li>Mia Goth is undoubtedly a star</li> <li>Builds to a hopeless ending for its main character</li> <li>Filmed in glorious technicolour</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>Doesn’t manage to truly surprise</li> <li>David Corenswet is a bit, well, wet</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Purchased by TXH</li> <li>Running time and release date - 1hr 42mins | 2022 <li>To rent/buy - £no rent/$19.99 SD, HD, UHD</li> </ul>Pearl - Film Review
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