TIFF Review: “Pearl”

Toronto International Film Festival 2022 Midnight Madness North American Premiere

It was perhaps about a minute into the end credits for “Pearl”—Ti West’s prequel to his film from earlier this year, “X”—that the audience at TIFF’s packed midnight madness premiere erupted into applause and cheers. The image that plays over those credits—an extended, live-action freeze frame—puts star Mia Goth’s talents center stage, while encapsulating the sorta weird, sorta funny, and pretty darn clever shades to both installments of West’s new horror series. It’s not usually a great thing when the end credits are the best part of a movie, but what precedes them in “Pearl” is just as unsettling and enthralling.

Set in 1918 on a Texas homestead, “Pearl” sees Mia Goth reprising her role from “X,” playing the disturbed old woman from the latter film as a fresh-faced young farm girl who dreams of stardom. But her wistfulness belies a dark side brought on by repression. Pearl’s domineering mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) doesn’t approve of Pearl’s frivolous desires, preventing her from pursuing a more exciting life by keeping her home to work on the farm and care for her bedridden father (Matthew Sunderland). And Pearl’s husband Howard is away fighting in World War I, leaving other desires unfulfilled and leading her to fantasize about the local cinema’s attractive projectionist (David Corenswet) who seems to take a shine to her, and, most memorably, a scarecrow she happens upon on the bike ride home.

If “X” was West’s homage to 70s indie horror along the lines of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Pearl” uses Technicolor Hollywood melodramas as the blueprint for Pearl’s origin story. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett’s saturated photography emphasizes the golden sun on the cornfields, the richness of Pearl’s costumes, and the bright red splatters of blood, while Tyler Bates and Tim Williams’ music is evocative of the heightened drama of 30s and 40s scores. “Pearl”—which was shot back-to-back with “X”—stands alone just fine, but paired together, the two films are in perfect conversation with each other.

Mia Goth as “Pearl”; image courtesy of TIFF

At first blush, “Pearl” is less exciting and thematically rich than “X,” which used the premise of young actors shooting a porn movie on Pearl and Howard’s ranch to dig in to themes of celebrity, ageism, and female desire and sexuality, with Goth’s double characters mirroring each other. But those subjects still manifest themselves in “Pearl,” albeit in a more straightforward fashion (see the aforementioned scarecrow scene, or Pearl’s fascination with a European stag film the projectionist shows her). We see early on how holding her down only prompts Pearl’s killer instincts to rise to the surface, first in miniscule ways—stabbing a rogue goose in the barn with a pitchfork—before escalating to outright murder. That switch seems to flip rather quickly, but Goth’s remarkable performance sells it. If “X” proved how adept she is at handling two very different characters at the same time, “Pearl” proves that she can wholly inhabit a role and carry an entire movie on her back. Goth deftly switches between dreamer and killer, culminating in a staggering monologue lasting several minutes in which she confesses the reasons for her resentment toward her family to her sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro). It’s the sort of hair-raising performance that immediately cements Goth as one of the screen’s great scream queens, and Pearl—who doesn’t demand sympathy, but does command respect—as one of horror’s great female villains.

“Pearl” dials back the level of gore and kills compared to “X,” opting instead for a story that is less graphic and outright frightening in favor of a simmering character study that becomes increasingly disturbing as it unfolds. The two films still share a perverse sense of humor in addition to themes centering around women, but the slight shift in tone and craft is appropriate to the different cinematic eras West is trying to evoke, also “Pearl’s” setting during the 1918 influenza epidemic lends it a recognizable contemporary edge (Ruth warns Pearl to cover her face when she goes into town). If “X” was all grit, “Pearl” is all gloss, its outward beautiful masking its sinister underbelly. Whereas “X” is a movie I more immediately enjoyed, “Pearl” is a slow burn that I have found myself thinking about more and more in the week since I first watched it. I love the idea of West creating installments of this series inspired by different points in cinema history, and he used TIFF’s midnight madness screening to debut a teaser for a third movie, “Maxxxine,” a sequel to “X” set in the mid-1980s that will use the rise of VHS as a backdrop to Maxine’s (Goth’s younger character in “X”) continuing pursuit of fame. Neither movie is without their shortcomings, but both are brimming with West’s singular vision (and Goth’s, who cowrote “Pearl” along with West) and a pure love for cinema that extends beyond mere homage (the color-drenched allusions to Douglas Sirk’s melodramas and the thematic and visual parallels to “The Wizard of Oz” are present without overshadowing the narrative), and I can’t wait to see where he and Goth go with it next.

“Pearl” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 101 minutes. Rated R.

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