Mia Goth and Ti West have something special going right now. What they crafted earlier this year with X (reviewed here in a previous hybrid Sunday Scaries piece) was pretty damn great, so this surprise sequel was a joy to find out about. Now, having seen Pearl at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s more interesting to know that this exists. While X was a riff on horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Pearl is closer in nature to the work of John Waters. Twisted but bathed in technicolor, the flick is unlike anything else out there. Midnight Madness at TIFF was made for something like this.
Pearl will confound some, but those on its wavelength will get a major kick out of it. Now, I will says, I was rubbed very much the wrong way by the film’s cruel streak towards animals, but it certainly establishes how off-kilter our protagonist is. I just wish the cruelty was centered more on humans, but that’s me.
A prequel to X, this is the origin story of Pearl (Goth), the murderous old woman from that film. Here, she’s a teenager, trapped on her family’s isolated farm, in the midst of a pandemic, while her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) is at war. Pearl spends her days tending to her disabled and nearly comatose father (Matthew Sunderland), while constantly bumping up against the rule of her bitter and overbearing mother, the strictly devout Ruth (Tandi Wright). Pearl yearns for a glamorous life, much like she’s seen in the movies when she sneaks off into town. At the same time, the wright of her repression is beginning to cause her to act out, sometimes in lust ways, but other times in violent ones.
As she demonstrates some very psychotic tendencies, Pearl also catches the eye of the projectionist (David Corenswet) at the cinema she attends. Shown an early pornographic film, that seems to combine with an opportunity to leave her family behind, setting her off on a path that will leave a trail of bodies in her wake.
Mia Goth is phenomenal again, making this role truly iconic. In X, her dual roles was incredible to witness, but here, she’s digging in deep to figure out how Pearl got to where we eventually met her. You feel for her, while always being unsettled or even repulsed by her. It’s a fine line, but watching her is immensely compelling (the just announced trilogy topper Maxxxine should be just as strong a vehicle). Goth is amazing, plain and simple. Tandi Wright is the only other cast member with much to do, but her overtly bitter mother isn’t nearly as well developed as Pearl is. The small supporting cast also includes Emma Jenkins-Purro, but it’s Goth’s showcase, without question.
Ti West continues to up his filmmaking game. Co-writing with Goth and directing, this technicolor horror is his most distinctive work yet. Pearl is a whole other ball of wax from X, so they’re fascinating companion pieces. The surreal Waters influences and technicolor style is also just very singular, especially for this genre. West certainly is not doing your garden variety horror prequel. If they have another great idea with Maxxxine, we’re going to be in for a treat in a year or so. This is an unlikely horror franchise, but it’s quickly becoming one of the best in the modern era.
Pearl was a highlight of TIFF’s Midnight Madness section and is one of the most interesting films in theaters this weekend. Especially if you liked X, it’s a must see, but even if you missed that flick, there’s plenty to offer here. As one of the more unique horror movies of the year, it definitely stands out. Bring on Maxxxine, I say!