GFF2023 Review: Pearl

Year: 2022

Runtime: 103 minutes

Director: Ti West

Writers: Ti West and Mia Goth

Stars: Mia Goth

By Calum Cooper

Ti West shocked and humoured audiences alike with his campy new slasher “X” (2022). Featuring strong thrills and a playfully flamboyant tone, it was a fun horror film that stood out even among 2022’s strong horror collective. During production of “X”, in the midst of the (ongoing) Covid-19 pandemic, West and actor Mia Goth wrote a backstory for the villainous Pearl, which was filmed and released six months after “X” in the United States. For whatever reason, the UK has only just now obtained “Pearl” (2022) as part of the Glasgow Film Festival. Yet it was worth the wait as “Pearl” is as camp and zany as its predecessor, if not more so.

Set in 1918, during the Influenza pandemic, Pearl (Goth) is a young woman living on the same farm where the characters of “X” will eventually be met with her fury in fifty years time. With her husband Howard away fighting in the Great War, and her domineering mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) demanding nothing less than servitude for her and Pearl’s paralysed father (Matthew Sunderland), Pearl longs for a more exciting life. Captured by the silent films she sneaks off to see in the cinema, and particularly the dancing features, she vows to escape the farm and become a dancer. In her mind she’s already a star, but her obsessive aspiration also fuels her resentment for others and the budding bloodlust contained within.

Pearl is a fascinating character who could easily join the ranks of the great slasher villains. She’s a megalomaniac with delusional ideas of grandeur and a victim complex the size of Jupiter. Yet West and Goth’s script does a lot to generate sympathy for her too. Her desires for something more are a universally shared ambition and the casual cruelty she suffers at the hands of her mother, while not an excuse for her actions, certainly demonstrates how her already frail mind is susceptible to the entitlement and resentment she feels. A part of us wants Pearl to succeed despite knowing that she inevitably won’t.

“Anchored by West’s evocative direction and Goth’s spellbinding performance, it is a rambunctiously quirky movie with blood, guts, and zaniness to spare. Pearl the character may not be a star, but “Pearl” the movie is an absolute blast!”

It’s a brilliant juxtaposition that’s embraced by Mia Goth’s utterly breathtaking performance. Hammy to a grandiose scale, her work effortlessly balances the inherent ridiculousness with a real vulnerability underneath all of the pretentious bitterness that frames Pearl. It’s a self-aware performance that isn’t in your face about it, but rather blends seamlessly with the camp tone and heavy subject matter to create something that’s quite quirky one moment and desperately sad or haunting the next. One monologue involving Pearl confessing to her growing fondness of murder is filmed in an unbroken close up that must have lasted five minutes or more, yet Goth is so delightfully manic that it’s impossible to turn away. This is Goth’s best performance to date.

Just as impressive is the craft surrounding this performance, which harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood delightfully. Just as Pearl aspires to be a star, West clearly has an affinity for the silver screen in all its magnetism. The colour scheme of the film – with its emphasised reds, blues and yellows – would look at home in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). There’s a whimsical allure to the cinematography and production design that beautifully enhances Pearl’s rose-tinted views of life beyond the farm, and later acts as an ironic contrast to the horrors of Pearl’s actions. The use of film grain, the aesthetics of the farm house and the general dynamic between Pearl and her mother even reminded this reviewer of Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976). West shares a similar love for cinema and all its glamour as Pearl, with the craftsmanship capturing this magnificently.

This combination of factors creates a film that is electrically engaging – one that’s arguably even more embracing of the off-kilter tone as “X”. But, similar to its predecessor, the thematic richness is pleasantly surprising. That’s not to suggest that slashers have ever been devoid of themes – they never have been – yet there’s a surprising tenderness and sense of empathy underneath the blood, guts and maggots depicted. The film is about the pursuit of dreams, and how quickly they can crumble when we put all our eggs in one basket. Aspirations are natural, but romanticising them can end up in the denial or even loss of reality as well as everything else that makes us who we are. Even setting this story to the backdrop of war and disease highlights Pearl’s ease at trading in harsh reality for a wishful fantasy. In showing how Pearl’s desires were unattainable, whether due to circumstance, her own murderous entitlement, or a mix of both, West and Goth have crafted a harrowing backstory for a captivating villainess, one that’s as thought provoking as it is brilliantly made.

“Pearl” is gruesome, horrifying and disgusting. But it is also wildly entertaining. A profound character study that serves as an ode to cinema as much as a psychological examination of repression, desire and delusion, it is playful in its usage of established slasher tropes while also confident enough to embrace its own tone and dark content. Anchored by West’s evocative direction and Goth’s spellbinding performance, it is a rambunctiously quirky movie with blood, guts, and zaniness to spare. Pearl the character may not be a star, but “Pearl” the movie is an absolute blast!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s