It’s 1918. The world is in the grip of a global pandemic. Spanish flu has even arrived in rural America but that’s not playing on Pearl’s mind. As portrayed by Mia Goth, Pearl is an isolated farm girl with stardom in her eyes. Siphoning off money to feed her cinema habit, her Germanic mother has nothing but withering disdain for her daughter when she should be sacrificing herself to running their farm and nursing her crippled father.
… is a curious case of mixed fortune and grasping ambition.
However, from its opening strings and the score’s low register brass section, Pearl is a film that positively screams at you that nothing is ok. With its forties style typography and densely saturated 1050s colour palette, Ti West’s latest addition to his X series is a deliberate mess of homages and borrowings.
As Pearl strikes up a casual relationship with the town’s projectionist and chats to her sister-in-law Mitzi, this a deliberately one-note film. Pearl is plainly and patently bonkers. Bad stuff is about to go down and every inflexion is telegraphed well ahead with the subtlety of a fluorescent pitchfork. And normally, this would be a fatal death blow for any film less convinced of its premise – but not Pearl.
Steamrollering towards a local dance audition that could parachute Pearl to a different future, Hitchcock’s Psycho is ready to take over where The Wizard of Oz left off. Whilst Pearl’s Texas may not be Kansas, Mia Goth is completely possessed by her sense of destiny. Wild-eyed and smiling beatifically whenever the situation calls for it, her performance harks back to a Betty Davis on the prowl, nervously looking for affirmation in everyone she terrifies. Wrestling with whether she’s a “good person”, America’s well-documented need for external validation gets brushed with a brick when she realises that the farm she so desperately wants to escape is the only place that will support her version of reality.
With red flags having been constantly waived by this point, this isn’t a film for surprises but that is its clever conceit. By not attempting to withhold anything from you, you will ultimately crave any kind of hidden secret that Pearl, the film, will delight in denying you.
Sitting through the credits, I have to admit Pearl is one of the most tonally challenging films I’ve watched in a long, long time. From the direction, the score, the scoring and the script, it sails right on the edge of parody without ever capsizing over into it.
See Pearl. Let her knowingly frustrate you. It’ll be worth it.