Dreams change as we age. When I was younger, I wanted to be a doctor, fireman, astronaut, singer, actor and obscenely rich. Professionally I am none of those things. I schedule commercials for a radio station group, try to keep a handle on inventory and do monthly billing, among other things. Those dreams of my youth shaped the desires of early adulthood. I couldn’t be a singer, but that led me to working in radio. There are much worse jobs, and there are better ones. Still, my dreams guided me to where I am today because I learned the realities of how much talent, hard work and luck I would need to make any one of my early ambitions come true. I don’t consider what I do settling, I consider it reality. The title character in this week’s movie, “Pearl,” sees herself as an undiscovered superstar, but the reality of her average talent doesn’t shape a more realistic future, it shapes a more deadly one.
It’s 1918 and Pearl (Mia Goth) lives on a farm in Texas with her disabled father (Matthew Sunderland) and her stern mother Ruth (Tandi Wright). Pearl dreams of dancing on stage and in movies like the films she sees at the picture show. Ruth scoffs at Pearl, scolding her to do her chores and help take care of her father. Pearl resents Ruth for always crushing her dreams, so Pearl sneaks off to the picture show whenever she gets the chance. There she meets a handsome young projectionist (David Corenswet) who takes a liking to Pearl and compliments her beauty, inviting her to come knock on the side door any time to watch the movies for free. Pearl is smitten, but she is married to Howard (Alistair Sewell) who is off fighting in Europe during World War I. Pearl’s fantasies about stardom and fame are mixed with a casual cruelty towards small animals. She skewers a goose with a pitchfork and feeds it to the alligator she calls Theda, living in a small lake on their farm. When Pearl’s sister-in-law, Mitzi (Emma Jenkins-Purro) tells her about an upcoming dance team audition that would tour the state, Pearl sees it as her way off the farm she hates. What comes next is a deep dive into madness, violence and revenge.
“Pearl” is a prequel to a film from earlier this year called “X” about a group of young people going to an isolated Texas farm to shoot a porno video in 1979 and the violence and mayhem that ensues. “Pearl” lays the groundwork for what occurs in “X,” and “X” sets up what’s to come in the recently announced “MaXXXine.” All three films will be written and directed by Ti West and co-written by actress Mia Goth, who performs a dual role in “X” as the young porn performer Maxine and the elderly Pearl. It’s a whole universe of madness, violence and gore. I’m looking forward to seeing the third film in the series and if the filmmakers can continue to impress.
Mia Goth is the undisputed star of “Pearl.” Not only because she plays the title role, but she wrings every bit of emotion out of it. Goth performs a lengthy monologue as the final act kicks off. It appears to be done with very little editing. The camera is focused in close on Goth’s face, forcing the audience to experience all the hurt and madness of Pearl as she spills her heart out to her sister-in-law. Tears leave streaks of makeup down her face as she talks about her desire, her NEED to leave the farm, the anger she feels towards Howard for leaving her there, and the disappointment as she sees her dreams fading into a dull reality. It is uncomfortable watching as this young woman admits she is everything her mother said she was, that she doesn’t feel things the way others do, that she’s dangerous and confesses to her crimes. It is a mesmerizing bit of acting that, in a straight drama, would get serious awards consideration. Since it’s in a horror film, Goth will be ignored at Oscars time. That is a major indictment against the Academy and its ignoring of great performances in genre films.
“Pearl” is a film that thrives with atmosphere. You know something bad is going to happen because of its trailers and it’s a prequel to a horror film. But the feeling of sadness and dread as you watch this young woman spiral ever more into madness makes the violence, when it comes, that much more effective. There is plenty of gore and disturbing images in “Pearl” that are a requirement of the genre, but if that was removed, it would still be a fascinating film about the hopes and dreams of a young woman crumbling to dust before her eyes and how that destroys her. “Pearl” is both a horror film and a character study.
“Pearl” is rated R for some strong violence, gore, strong sexual content and graphic nudity. Most of the nudity is from a very old stag film the projectionist shows to Pearl. We see bare breasts and a man’s backside. There is also sexual activity shown but it is not graphic. Pearl engages in simulated sex with a scarecrow. Pearl impales a goose with a pitchfork. We don’t see the actual act, but the aftermath. A character is killed with the pitchfork. Another is killed via axe. A character catches fire and her charred skin and scalp are shown. A character is suffocated off screen. We see Pearl dismembering at least one victim with an axe, tossing a severed head to the alligator. A cooked pig is shown covered in maggots. There is no foul language.
There’s more going on in “Pearl” that just murder and mayhem. We watch a young woman experience the loss of hope, driving her, along with her psychopathy, to commit heinous acts. Most will only see the violence, but there is a serious commentary about how young woman are usually beaten down by society and the education system. We view them as only sexual objects meant to please men, bare the children and clean the house, and we work to destroy them when they step outside of societal norms. Or maybe I’m reading too much into Ti West’s work and it is just a slasher film. Either way, it’s very good.
“Pearl” gets five stars out of five.
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