Pearl review: Mia Goth melts down as a serial killer in the making
As played by a fresh-faced, subtly unhinged Mia Goth, Pearl performs the tasks that might fall to any farm girl living in 1918 with a husband away fighting the Great War. She tends to her aging parents, sneaking off to the silent movies when she can. She feeds the livestock, chatting with Mr. Deuce, a duck. She tongue-kisses a scarecrow. She casually impales the duck with a pitchfork (sorry, Mr. Deuce), feeding it to an alligator in the local pond. She fantasizes about her husband's body exploding on a mine.
Pearl, if you haven't guessed it, is special ("I'm special," she says to no one in particular), and here's where anyone hoping to avoid spoilers for this movie or Ti West's 1970s-set retro slasher X — to which Pearl is a prequel — will want to check out. In X, Goth pulled off a fun, uncredited double dip, performing as that film's Maxine, a lanky wannabe porn star, and also its decrepit Pearl, the elderly murderous owner of the property on which the crew shoots Maxine's debut, The Farmer's Daughters.
But though it shares a cinematic universe with X (and a similar Searchers-like opening shot), Pearl is the superior film, less beholden to West's occasionally hermetic sense of horror-movie homage, but vibrating with the gushy gestures of Sirk-by-way-of-John-Waters melodrama. The new film explodes with primary colors, sporting a scripted title card with the name of the movie in quotes; it also floats along on that rarest of things, a churning wall-to-wall orchestral score (the intentionally emotive work is by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams).
It's a register well suited to depicting a mind plunging into fury. The dialogue isn't overheated so much as charred: "Malevolence is festering within you," declares Pearl's severe German mother (Tandi Wright), their Carrie-ish dynamic boding well for fans of gory parent-daughter showdowns. Pearl is best viewed as its main character's movie-obsessed vision, everyone else in it mere supporting players to the swirl in her head. Meanwhile, a pig carcass gathers maggots on the front porch, a sight few visitors seem to process as the warning it is.
Co-scripting with her director, Goth is the standout, displaying a verbal vigor and earthiness she's been unable to tap so far (not even in movies like Nymphomaniac and A Cure for Wellness). Her babyish cheeks and slightly spaced delivery have never been put to better ends, and Goth makes the most of a croaking, lengthy one-take monologue, during which a new horror monster is born. Pearl is the rare origin story where you see the breakdown happening in real time. Grade: A–
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In Ti West’s prequel to X, a lonely farm girl slides into murderous impulses.