As a full orchestra plays a sweeping Old Hollywood-style melody, a young girl cheerfully goes about her chores on a farm. She feeds the animals, milks the cows, and mucks out the stalls while dreaming out loud about what her future has in store. She longs for something bigger and brighter than this. She dreams of being a movie star. She is interrupted by a goose waddling around where it shouldn’t be, and calmly stabs it with a pitchfork. She then brings the dead goose to a swampy area, and feeds it to the gator who lives there As the title screen helpfully tells us, the young woman in question is named Pearl, and audiences might remember her from Ti West’s deliciously debauched 70s grindhouse throwback X earlier this year. In that film, Pearl was played by the young actress Mia Goth (Suspiria, Emma.) under lots of uncannily convincing old age makeup. She is now returning to the role – without any prosthetic work – in a film that she and West co-wrote and shot immediately after production wrapped on X. Pearl is the product of a burst of COVID lockdown-era creativity from two artists unsure of what the future of their craft was going to look like, who took advantage of the opportunity to expand on a character who receives no real backstory in her first cinematic appearance, and hoped that they would get to make something out of it. If we never would have have gotten this movie otherwise, then maybe all the lockdowns were worth it, because Pearl is a bonkers blast: A Technicolor throwback to the style of the 1940s and 50s, with content that Hollywood wouldn’t have touched with a hundred-foot pole at the time.
The film takes place in 1918, in the middle of the Spanish flu epidemic. Pearl’s husband has gone off to war, and she is helping her mother take care of both the farm and her invalid father. Pearl’s mother (Tandi Wright) is a devoted Catholic and stern German woman, the kind who will take your dinner plate away and tell you go to your room when she notices you didn’t bring back change from the drugstore run she sent you on and gets out of you that you bought a piece of candy for the bike ride back from town, saying that the candy was your dinner. Pearl knows that this punishment is nothing compared to what she would get if she told her mother the truth: She actually went to the movies to see the chorus girls of “Palace Follies.” Pearl wants to escape the humdrum toil of her life on the farm, and the movies allow her both an escape and a dream. When her sister-in-law Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro) tells her that the local church is holding an audition for touring chorus girls, Pearl sees her chance, and as God is her witness, she will not be ignored; she will ace her audition and get to live the life she’s always dreamed of.
Hollywood’s self-mythologizing goes back to practically its inception, as the tale of young people leaving their family farms with only a few dollars in their pocket to pursue their dreams and make it as a star is an incredibly potent, feel-good story. But for every Barbara Stanwyck or Lana Turner that came from almost nothing to become a huge star, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people whose dreams were stabbed in the heart by the business. With X and now Pearl (and likely continuing with MaXXXine, an X sequel focusing on Goth’s wannabe pornstar final girl from that film, which West announced with a teaser at the end of Pearl’s Midnight Madness screening at the Toronto International Film Festival), West is looking at the ugly underbelly of the Hollywood myth, exposing the rot that lies beneath the glossy sheen of the silver screen, and the dangers it can do to already unstable minds.
Goth, who also co-wrote Pearl with West, is nothing short of a revelation here. If the actress’s previous work, especially her incredible double turn in X, hadn’t been convincing enough, Pearl proves without a doubt that she is one of the finest actresses working today. Throughout the film’s first half, she recalls so many Old Hollywood starlets whose energy exploded into joy on the screen – Ginger Rogers, Mitzi Gaynor, Judy Garland (the film is full to bursting with clever visual Wizard of Oz references) – but adds a twisted, uninhibited dark side bubbling underneath that can boil over on a dime. A climactic monologue near the film’s end fully embraces both the horror and the melodrama of the character, and Goth delivers it in a riveting series of long takes (bless West, who serves as his own editor, for the cuts to Jenkins-Purro’s perfectly judged reaction shots), deepening the character with each one. It’s absolutely a credit to West and Goth as writers that this monologue makes Pearl both more sympathetic and more terrifying, and that despite the film’s ever-present nods to camp, this moment lands with all dramatic seriousness. When paired with the film’s astonishing final shot, it is undeniable that Goth is giving the performance of the year, a deranged symphony of madness and melancholy that walks a tricky tonal line with the unbridled confidence of a performer at the absolute top of their game. That this takes place in what is ostensibly a grimy little horror flick only adds to Goth’s achievement.
“Ostensibly” is the key word there, as Pearl completely upends any expectations for what a horror film can look and feel like. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett drenches the production in vibrant Technicolor, and Tyler Bates and Tim Williams’s omnipresent score takes the Old Hollywood aesthetic and runs with it, jamming in as many references to classic film scores as possible. The film is even refreshingly free of gore until the third act, preferring to focus on the psychological horror of Pearl’s increasingly precarious mental state. While it may test horror fans a bit, especially since it doesn’t have the classic horror look which kept X feeling like a lost 70s grindhouse flick even when there wasn’t any blood, West throws in so many deliciously twisted ideas that the film remains a perversely entertaining ride throughout: Come for the gore, stay for the fantasy WWI production number! Pearl wears its artistic influences on its sleeves as proudly as X did. The fact that its influences are from an era of Hollywood that never acknowledged the kind of kinky fuckery that is on full display here makes it feel fresh and exciting in a way that so few horror films achieve these days. Whatever West and Goth want to do next, bring it on!
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. A24 will release Pearl only in theaters on September 16.