On a remote farm in 1918, Pearl (Mia Goth) longs for stardom and a life beyond her drab surroundings. Her domineering mother (Tandi Wright) and invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) hold her back, but when she meets a young projectionist (David Corenswet) and tries out for a chorus line audition, Pearl sees a way to success and follows it - at any cost...
Last year's 'X' proved to be a surprise hit for Ti West, who up until this point had been toiling in the underground of schlocky 'Hostel'-inspired horrors and the occasional western or thriller. Naturally, a sequel followed but what's been particularly fascinating about seeing a trilogy spring up almost immediately is how cleverly it's been handled. 'X' saw Mia Goth in a dual role as Maxine, an aspiring porn star and Pearl, an aged psychotic killer who envies Maxine and her youth. 'Pearl' is set in 1918, and sees the title character in her heyday.
Ti West cleverly uses bright, saturated colour and a swirling, romantic score from Tim Williams and Tyler Bates to make it seem like something like a crazed live-action Disney movie. There's bright technicolour everywhere, but in the shadows and quiet moments, you get this sense of utter dread and hardship. It's in the middle of a flu pandemic, and Pearl is the daughter of German immigrants who has been marginalised due to the sentiment against Germans in the wake of World War I. Unlike 'X', 'Pearl' is much less concerned with stacking up a high body count or scaring people. Rather, it boils and bubbles slowly and we see bursts of the insanity behind Pearl's eyes - the lusting and rage, all of it trapped beneath this thin veneer of smiles and hair ribbons.
Mia Goth's performance as Pearl is terrifyingly good. In one single scene, she's able to snap between screaming into someone's face one moment and then arousing herself in a demented fashion with a prone scarecrow the next. Her dead-eyed playfulness evokes memories of Kathy Bates in 'Misery', all sweetness and savagery, but there's more to it than just psycho-biddy thrills. Goth's work on scripting 'Pearl' eschews easy answers and obvious tropes.
The dynamic with her on-screen mother, for example, is a fascinating examination of domineering parenting and acceptance of hardships. Another scene, in which Pearl openly confesses her darkest secrets to her sister-in-law, is done in a single take and has the kind of intensity that you'd expect from a roiling psychodrama that would easily be swept up in awards buzz. Yet, because the Oscars and its ilk so consistently exclude and ignore genre filmmaking, it passes by mainstream audiences entirely.
At a little over 100 minutes, 'Pearl' may be somewhat thinly plotted, but the outsized performance from Mia Goth, the sumptuous visuals and commanding direction from Ti West, and its sense of dread and playfulness more than make up for this. If only all horror sequels or prequels were this good.