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Pearl

Mia Goth is magnetic again in this gem of a prequel to Ti West's 2022 slasher standout 'X'.
By Sarah Ward
March 16, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
March 16, 2023
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70s-era porn, but make it a slasher flick: when Ti West's X marked the big-screen spot in 2022, that's one of the tricks it pulled. The playful, smart and gory horror standout also arrived with an extra spurt of good news, with West debuting it as part of a trilogy. 30s- and 40s-period technicolour, plus 50s musicals and melodramas, but splatter them with kills, genre thrills and ample blood spills: that's what the filmmaker behind cult favourites The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers now serves up with X prequel Pearl. Shot back to back with its predecessor, sharing mesmerising star Mia Goth (Emma), and co-written by her and West — penned during their two-week COVID-19 quarantine period getting into New Zealand to make the initial movie, in fact — it's a gleaming companion piece. It's also a savvy deepening and recontextualising of a must-see scary-movie franchise that's as much about desire, dreams and determination as notching up deaths.

In one of her X roles, Goth was magnetic as aspiring adult-film actor Maxine Minx, a part she'll reprise in the trilogy's upcoming third instalment MaXXXine. As she proved first up and does again in Pearl, she plays nascent, yearning, shrewd and resolute with not just potency, but with a pivotal clash between fortitude and vulnerability; when one of Goth's youthful X Universe characters says that they're special or have the X factor, they do so with an astute blend of certainty, good ol' fashioned wishing and hoping, and naked self-convincing. This second effort's namesake, who Goth also brought to the screen in her elder years in X, wants to make it in the pictures, too. Looking to dance on her feet instead of horizontally, stardom is an escape (again), but Pearl's cruel mother Ruth (Tandi Wright, Creamerie), a religiously devout immigrant from Germany turned bitter from looking after her ailing husband (Mathew Sunderland, The Stranger), laughs at the idea.

This franchise hones in women who know what they want, aren't afraid to attempt to get it and snap after their fantasies as hungrily as an alligator (handily, the Texan ranch that both films so far are set on sports a lake with a large ravenous reptile). That said, the X-Pearl-MaXXXine realm also focuses on women who aren't just one thing, not for a second — being adamant about what they'd like to with their lives included. That's a key reason why X and Pearl alike offer more than merely well-executed carnage, although they each deliver that in visceral spades. West's screenplays, no matter who he is or isn't scripting with, see innocence and insidiousness lurking in the same pools, and spot them with the same clear eyes. In Pearl, they see them peering out from the same peepers as well. Indeed, this saga unpacks the fine line between competing forces, impulses, emotions and outcomes whenever and however it can.

One such conflict: the existence that Pearl is told she should be happy with versus the lure of being a chorus girl that she can't shake. Actually, to say that Ruth wants her to be content with her lot in life is overstating it: Pearl's mum doesn't care if her daughter finds any joy in dutiful drudgery. So, the young woman steals away to the local cinema when she can, where the projectionist (David Corenswet, We Own This City) screens the dancers that she wants to be. When they're alone — when she warms to a rare dose of attention — he also screens an early skin flick. And, at home, Pearl works through her sexual appetite with a scarecrow (The Wizard of Oz, this isn't) and her bloodlust by feeding farm animals to said gator. But it's news of auditions for a travelling dance revue, which she pledges to try out for with her sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro, One of Us Is Lying), that truly gets her desires pumping.

Like X before it, Pearl's narrative is deeply steeped in its chosen era. This time around, it's 1918 rather than six decades later — a choice of year that isn't just about the maths needed to link to X. As the COVID-19 pandemic ensured that everyone knows, influenza was wreaking havoc. In a detail that mightn't be as well known, it was first recorded just two states up from Pearl's homestead. Also, the First World War was still being waged until November. Pearl's life is touched by both, with sickness an ever-present worry in her town — face masks are sighted — and its men, her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell, The Power of the Dog) among them, off in combat. Confronted by life's grimness several times over, and by a persistent fantasy of breaking free, how's a repressed and downtrodden gal to cope? This one does so with murder and mayhem.

Back in the 50s, Douglas Sirk made an art out of 'women's pictures', as they were derisively called — pictures that surveyed the emotional turmoil simmering within unfulfilled female protagonists, and understood how such complex inner chaos could be tied to the times, class and societal structures, and the expectations and restrictions placed upon the fairer sex. The legacy that films like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life have left is immense, and Pearl slots right in beside everything that's followed in those footsteps. Sirk definitely didn't make slashers, though. Neither did Carol's Todd Haynes when he crafted 2002's wonderful Far From Heaven, a drama firmly in the Sirkian mould. West and Goth pay loving tribute to all that cinema has allowed in these past greats, while also getting savagely subversive; their portrait of Pearl's namesake is a horror movie and a tragedy.

Pearl is glorious on both Goth and returning X cinematographer Eliot Rockett's parts, too, with a lead performance and a look that could've wowed audiences in the mid-20th century. Goth isn't just the feature's star — she's its pulse, with every electrifying change of mood, expression and pace, often within the same scene, rippling through the film like a gusty farmyard breeze. Rockett unsurprisingly adores staring her way, making Goth as sumptuous a sight as the saturated colour palette around her (not that the High Life, Suspiria and A Cure for Wellness talent needs any help). Composers Tyler Bates (the John Wick films) and Tim Williams (Brightburn) provide a sweeping orchestral score that's equally as rich, harking back to old Hollywood in its swelling notes. West, doing his own editing as he usually does, winks with his use of retro wipes and dissolves as much as the movie's title font. There's grit to this flick, of course, thanks to its devilish rampages and making-of-a-villain origin story, but this is indeed a gem.

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