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Pearl cements Mia Goth’s place as a true horror icon

Polygon has a team on the ground at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, reporting on the horror, comedy, drama, and action movies meant to dominate the cinematic conversation as we head into awards season. This review was published in conjunction with the film’s TIFF premiere.

When horror writer-director Ti West premiered his gory period slasher X at SXSW in March 2022, it came with a surprise reveal: an end-credits trailer for a prequel, Pearl, which would fill in the backstory of X’s ruthless main villain. For Pearl’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, West pulled a similar trick, with a teaser and announcement for a third film, MaXXXine, as a sequel to X. Where X is an ode to 1970s-style raw, grainy independent horror movies, West says MaXXXine will be inspired by the ’80s VHS boom — which the tracking lines, color glitches, and synth score on the MaXXXine teaser certainly underline.

That leaves Pearl as the middle movie in a trilogy (so far, at least), and also as the series’ biggest outlier. With stronger visuals than X, a phenomenal and ambitious performance from Mia Goth, but also an emptier and more meandering plot, Pearl loses the fun parts of Ti West’s pastiche. At the same time, it still delivers plenty of thrills and killer moments. It’s both a vividly painted nightmare and a showcase for its star.

X is firmly set during the independent filmmaking boom of the 1970s, as an homage to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as seen through the eyes of the porn industry. Mia Goth is stellar, pulling double duty as both final girl Maxine and as Pearl, the killer who comes after her. X has plenty of laughs, gory kills, inventive editing, and even some poignant commentary on show business and moviemaking ambitions.

Photo: Christopher Moss/A24

Pearl turns back the clock to tell Pearl’s story starting in 1918, when she’s a bright-eyed young woman (still played by Mia Goth) with big dreams of making it in the movies. The problem is that she’s stuck in a world too small for her. Her husband, Howard, is away in Europe, fighting the war to end all wars. In the meantime, Pearl is living at her parents’ farm under the thumb of her repressive German immigrant mother (Tandi Wright) and is forced to take care of her wheelchair-bound father (Matthew Sunderland) during the height of the Spanish flu pandemic, where people out on the streets wear masks over their mouths and noses, avoid close contact or indoor spaces, and constantly talk about the pandemic. A cacophony of coughing can be heard anywhere Pearl goes. What a coincidence!

Pearl hates her limited life under her mother’s eyes and judgment, and the only escapism she finds is at the movies. She dreams of being a dancer on the big screen, in front of big, adoring crowds. In the meantime, she dances to her animals, who she names after her favorite movie stars. She also occasionally kills one of them to feed the alligator that lives in the nearby pond. When she meets the self-serving projectionist (David Corenswet) at her local movie house, he sells her on big dreams of going to Europe and working as a dancer. He also grooms her, showing her a stag movie — the kind that paved the way for the indie porno shoot in X. Suddenly, Pearl sees a way out, and she’s willing to do anything to achieve it.

The primary reason to see Pearl is Mia Goth’s mesmerizing, tour-de-force performance. She infuses the role with enough innocence and wishfulness to make viewers root for her, even if they already know about her future crimes and are appalled by her choices in the present. While the look of the film may be inspired by Technicolor wonders like The Wizard of Oz, Goth’s performance is straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, kind and charming one minute, terrifying and deranged the next.

Where X was heavily inspired by the cheap, DIY aesthetic of early indie slashers, Pearl is aimed at replicating colorful visions in the vein of Mary Poppins. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett imbues the film with bright, vivid colors, a soft palette, and a dreamlike quality, while Tyler Bates and Tim Williams’ score gives the film a rousing symphonic sound that makes Pearl’s journey feel as grand as Maria’s in The Sound of Music. Pearl is pure pastiche in style, but it works wonderfully, and it resonates as something that expresses West’s reverence, rather than as a parody or simple imitation.

Mia Goth climbs up onto the perch of a creepy-looking scarecrow to give it a kiss in Ti West’s Pearl

Photo: Christopher Moss/A24

The problem is that the pastiche doesn’t feel as purposeful as it did in X. The very specific 1918 setting doesn’t seem to be there for any other reason than to include a COVID allegory. It isn’t about specific movie references, which don’t reflect the moviemaking of the 1910s, and it doesn’t comment on conservatism or censorship in film, as the setting comes decades before the Hays Code turned Hollywood into a prisoner of moral conservatism.

The script, co-written by West and Goth, doesn’t do much to deepen Pearl’s character — and why would it? She’s the thinnest excuse for a character in X, an ageist villain who murders young, attractive, sexually active people out of petty jealousy and spite, mostly to get across a wry sense of irony over the idea that old people still want to feel loved and desired. With Pearl, West and Goth had an opportunity to explore the environment that created Pearl’s sexual and killer drive, but they mostly leave it to viewers’ imaginations. Like X before it, Pearl presents its central character as little more than a stock slasher-movie psycho with selfish ambitions, no moral compass, and an appetite for blood.

Pearl is a showcase for Mia Goth as a horror star: The climax centers on a monologue where West holds the camera on her face for more than five minutes as she reveals what drives her. West paints a pretty picture in the film, building up gorgeous Technicolor nightmares, aided by painted backgrounds and bright colors. But the pieces don’t add up into anything more than a shiny surface. Pearl goes to show that just because you can shoot a movie in secret doesn’t mean you have to.

Pearl debuts in theaters on Sept. 16.

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