The boldness of Ti West and Mia Goth to script Pearl in a mere days-long quarantine window is a commendable, gobsmacking feat. The film wears its technicolor dreamcoat spiritedly well, and Goth conjures an origin performance—both on paper and screen—that’s comfortably lived-in. The problem is, there are stretches where Pearl feels like it was conceptualized on the fly so as not to waste New Zealand’s production transformation into Texas for X. While West’s sleazy ‘70s slasher remains one of my champion horror titles of 2022, Pearl is more like giddily deranged add-on downloadable content that makes for an unexpected bite-sized treat. Kudos to the accomplishment, and it’s an ax-swinging slice of bad-vibes hoedown kookiness, but there’s a particular substance missing that X oozes.
Goth trades in Pearl’s prosthetics for overalls to play a farmgirl in 1918 who dreams of moving picture stardom. Sadly, she’s oppressed by her overbearing and calloused German mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) who demands that Pearl tends to chores all day and plays caretaker to her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland). Pearl sees herself as a corn-harvestin’ prisoner; Ruth proclaims she’s keeping Pearl sensible. It’s a cruel world out there, and few people live their fantasies. Pearl’s nonetheless determined to ditch the farmland and wicked mother Ruth even if it kills her—or gets everyone else killed.
Pearl is a bizarre descent into the title character’s self-obsessed fantasy world. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett reframes the opening of X by swinging open barn doors to frame our expectations—only there’s no police crime scene this time. Showtune orchestras swell, and a Crayola box of vibrant colors makes Pearl’s imagination pop against the yellowest hay bails, greenest pastures and richest crimson bloodstains. West wants you to believe cartoon birds will fly through Pearl’s window and dress her like a Disney princess, ready to be whisked away by either her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) after his return from WWI or a tempting local theater projectionist (a studly Bohemian played by David Corenswet). Pearl is visualized through the delusional girl’s fixation on 1918’s media highlights, allowing old-school Hollywood homages to wash away X’s sweltering slasher grime.
Enter Goth, whose range spans Dorothy to Dahmer as disillusioned by neon marquee lights that might one day spell her name. She deserves mention alongside Toni Collette (Hereditary) and Jane Levy (Evil Dead) when ranking standout contemporary horror performances. Goth plays between Cinderella, Norman Bates and Annie Wilkes with a showbiz fetish. Pearl’s a children’s book protagonist when cheerily feeding the family’s sweet-eyed cow, then a sociopath hacking apart bodies for easy gator-feeding cleanups. Goth’s unmeasured delinquency in moments of potent absurdity—an X-rated scarecrow waltz, her “Au Revoir!” to a corpse, her ability to sexualize the unsexual—is a spectacular display of performative devotion. You’re watching Pearl to understand where the villainy begins, and Goth delivers everything from innocence incinerated to outrageousness heightened to violence most graphic.
Goth’s dominance aside, there’s a lack of sustainability to Pearl’s dreaded confrontation of normalcy should her plot-driving dance audition not be deemed life-changing or star-worthy. There’s masked pandemic imagery addressed, so West can film the local picture show sequence during COVID-19 protocols, but it’s not much beyond a safety precaution. Ruth’s cruelty as she punishes her daughter over dinner stews runs thin because it’s only there to provoke Pearl’s rebuttals. We already know Pearl survives until X, so danger goes missing despite Goth’s commitment to depicting extreme mood swings. There’s an exciting concept at play that compares Pearl to Maxine (Goth’s X survivor), using both characters to explore characters searching for their “X-factor,” but Pearl cuts away just as West poses the narrative’s most interesting questions.
Pearl is a fever dream of choreographed dancing, decapitations and Mia Goth carrying the weight of all 100+ minutes. West’s current muse is stark raving brilliant in an experimental slasher that’s a bit less meaty and fulfilling than X. That’s less a condemnation, more a note of comparison—which might be moot for some, because the films are so markedly different. Pearl’s successes will instigate proper horror-themed watercooler talk with good reason because it’s plenty buzzworthy and bonkers, all thanks to Goth’s crazed presence. You’re here for Pearl, and she’s ready to entertain—in a diversion like this, that’s worthwhile enough.
Director: Ti West
Writer: Ti West, Mia Goth
Starring: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro
Release Date: September 16, 2022
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.