Ti West | 1hr 42min
Shot in a secret back-to-back production with Ti West’s grindhouse horror pastiche X, Pearl pulls back the curtain on its predecessor’s decrepit, murderous villain, and centres her in the shining spotlight of Hollywood’s earliest days. Set roughly fifty years before the events leading to her demise, this prequel couldn’t be more distinct in its saccharine tone and vibrant style. Pearl herself is essentially this movie’s darker take on Dorothy Gale, longing to escape the confines of her rural Texan ranch and fly somewhere over the rainbow – or at least to the Hollywood hills, where she can make a name for herself as a chorus girl. Much like the visible influences of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in X, West wears his inspirations on his sleeve in Pearl, inviting us into a Technicolor dream where traces of The Wizard of Oz sit alongside seedier references to silent, pornographic stag films.
These pulpy renderings of two very different eras of cinema are ripe for some rich cultural comparisons, as the wannabe independent filmmakers of X approaching their ambitions with greater grit, practicality, and compromise than Pearl’s blatantly unrealistic aspirations. What they do have in common is unabashed ego, setting them all up for inevitable disappointment. “One day the whole world’s gonna know my name,” proclaims the enthusiastic young woman, echoing the words of Maxine Minx from X. Like the aspiring porn actress, Pearl comes from humble origins, though with her husband away fighting in the war and her German immigrant parents destroying any notion of life beyond the farm, she is also more stuck in the weeds of tradition. How much of her derangement is bred by this conservative culture versus how much is instinctually ingrained in her psyche is something which West thoughtfully teases out, but Hollywood’s bright promises of the American Dream certainly plays a part in exacerbating it.
After Mia Goth’s remarkable dual performances in X, it should be no surprise that she entirely dominates the screen here, playing right into Pearl’s simple-minded naivety and merciless psychopathy. No doubt she also benefits from the film’s refined focus on its intensive character study rather than a larger ensemble, and clearly West knows the talent he’s got at hand with his long takes that linger on her pained expressions and monologues. This is especially evident each time Pearl lands a kill, whether against an animal or human, as he builds solid form in returning to the same low angle of her disturbingly emotionless face. Her journey here is layered with romantic desire, personal ambition, and murderous rage, and through Goth’s skilled handling of each arc we come to realise how much they are all part of a single descent into madness.
Not that Pearl’s true nature is evident to many of those around her. While mother and father deny the terror that lies behind her innocent façade, her sister-in-law Mitsy and the projectionist she flirts with at the local cinema remain blissfully unaware, feeding her idealistic fantasies. West too is fanciful with his visual stylings, building a similar tension between his stylistic impersonation of old Hollywood movies and the festering degeneracy which lies beneath. With his gaudy wipe transitions, black-and-white interludes, and a classic orchestral score that swells with sentiment, Pearl is just as much an homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood as X is to the American New Wave of the 1970s.
Most accomplished of all though is West’s flamboyantly colourful cinematography, announcing itself from the very first shot that pushes us through a dark doorway not unlike Dorothy’s first steps into Oz, and into a picturesque composition of lush green lawns, a bright blue sky, and a freshly painted homestead. Recurring long shots of a withering cornfield frequently punctuates Pearl’s ventures in and out of town, and a particularly unnerving long take later in the film sticks us with one of her victims making a nervous, ill-fated getaway. Not only is this engrossingly stylish filmmaking from West, but by pushing well-worn genre conventions into direct conversation with cinema history itself, he layers his horror storytelling with a playful self-awareness. Pearl the film is just as much a warped product of the Hollywood dream machine as Pearl the aspiring actress, murderess, and housewife, relishing the superficial splendour that only barely conceals an uglier, malevolent truth.
Pearl is currently playing in theatres.
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