“Please lord, make me the biggest star the world has ever seen”, our heroine Pearl (Mia Goth) pleads each night before bed, accompanied by a garish string accompaniment that draws immediate comparisons to the early colour cinema. A skilled director of pastiche, Ti West has crafted a Douglas Sirk-styled film within the dark and gory world he has created with muse Goth, that is sure to thrill old and new fans alike. Immediately following the release of one of 2022’s best horror films, X, it was announced West and Goth will be creating a trilogy surrounding these characters, here with the prequel Pearl (2022), and concluding with MaXXXine (2023), all following Goth’s characters.
Set in 1918 Texas during the Influenza pandemic, Pearl is the only child of a German immigrant family. Pearl’s father (Matthew Sunderland) is infirm, laying the burden of survival in a trying time with Ruth (Tandi Wright), Pearl’s domineering mother who needs to get her daughter to help out around the farm. Pearl, however, is desperate to become a silent film star and dancer, sneaking off to the picture house every opportunity she gets.
Pearl’s love of cinema and desire to be a star is established in X, something that ties her to Goth’s other character Maxine in that film, which is deepened here. Pearl is never more joyful than when she is at the picture house, watching the newest dancing features. Goth and West craft such an empathetic and archetypal image of a budding star hoping to break out, that her budding malevolence is allowed to boil under the surface.
The film is aware its greatest strength is a close-up of Goth’s expressive face, a cinematic world into itself. Enough can’t be said about Goth’s commitment to the performance of this character, beginning in X but truly flowering here to create a singular horror cinema performance. You can immediately feel Goth’s co-writing credit in the character, similar to Hunter Schaeffer’s co-writing credit in the Euphoria (2019) Covid special, Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob (the artistic peak of the show), where a performer has a psychic connection to their role that tears through the screen.
The saturated, Wizard of Oz (1939) inspired-yet-repressed world that Pearl inhabits can grow tiring at stages, but the final act is such a showcase for Goth’s magnetism as a performer and writer, that the film leaves you satisfied. West’s films often have an issue of peaking early through his deft skill at creating tension and dread compared to his bloody finales, an issue absent in Pearl.
The film’s setting within the Influenza pandemic whilst being a Covid-produced film has a simple charm to it, with all crowds in masks and characters bemoaning the difficulties of recognising people in them. Pearl’s yearning to be out of the isolation of her farm during this pandemic is a more relatable experience than you’d expect to come out of this film.
Pearl is a unique prequel in that it has the potential to be viewed before the original film, X, due to its focused character study of Pearl, a character you leave the first film aching for more details on. West and Goth feel acutely aware of the aspects audiences were craving more from in X, namely the Pearl character and a further relishing of Goth’s unique screen presence.
Where X focuses on its wide ensemble and 70s environment, Pearl is very much a character study. Aside from a compelling performance by Tandi Wright as Ruth, Pearl’s mother, we are not given many deeply written side characters, allowing the audience to narrow their attention to our star. Wright and Goth have a similar dynamic to Spacek and Laurie in Carrie (1976), a foundational text for the film, particularly in its latter stages. While West is focusing on the juxtaposition of the Cinemascope aesthetic with the gore, the true dynamism is achieved through Goth’s varied performance that gets stymied by Wright’s hard-lined determination to survive their struggling lives. The real climax of the film is not a gory showstopper like in X, but the culmination of Pearl and Ruth’s resentments colliding at a family dinner.
The West trilogy is soon to be completed with the upcoming MaXXXine (2023), the first A24 trilogy. Following on from the events of X, this second entry in this quickly produced franchise is a unique world that has been crafted by a pair of oddball filmmakers in West and Goth that is refreshing in the world of IP drudgery we find ourselves in the never-ending middle of.
Pearl is in theatres from March 16th.