Pearl  (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Ti West, US/Canada/New Zealand, 2022, 102 mins

Cast:  Mia Goth, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, David Corenswet, Emma Jenkins-Purro

Review by Carol Allen

Three years ago writer/director Ti West and actress Mia Goth worked together on a film called X set in 1979,  in which Goth played Maxine, a porn movie actress and part of a film crew, who hire a remote farmhouse owned by an elderly couple as a location for their latest adult film.  

But living there is a mad old woman (also played by Goth) who is jealous of Maxine’s apparently glamorous and starry lifestyle and is out to kill her.

But while working on X, West and Goth were also developing another story, about that mad old woman as a girl – Pearl, which they started filming almost as soon as the first film wrapped.   Even if you haven’t seen (released last year) Pearl stands up perfectly well on its own.   And though it is a horror film this is not your standard slasher movie, even though it’s not without its moments of gore.

 It’s more a study of developing madness in the person of a seriously disturbed young woman losing touch with reality and just brutally removing anyone who gets in her way. 

Like X the film was shot in New Zealand, standing in for Texas and featuring that same remote farmhouse, where in 1918 young Pearl, played again by Goth, lives with her German immigrant parents.  The film is actually a bit of a showcase for New Zealand talent, in that most of the cast are Kiwis, apart from Goth herself who was born in London.

Pearl’s husband is away fighting in Europe. Her father (Matthew Sunderland) is severely disabled and helpless, her dour mother (Tandi Wright) is extremely strict with her only child and has no time for her foolish dreams of glamour and stardom in the still young world of the silent movies. The family’s isolation is exacerbated by the Spanish flu epidemic which is still sweeping the world. 

Initially Pearl appears quite a sympathetic character, talking affectionately to the farm animals that she tends.  So it’s a shock when she viciously kills a duck that wanders innocently onto the farm and then feeds it to the alligator in the nearby river.  Apparently alligators thrive in steamy southern Texas – though not in New Zealand.   They must have imported one for the film.

That dead duck though is just the beginning.  Pearl forms a relationship with the good looking projectionist (David Corenswet) in the town’s cinema where she loves to go.   She has sexual fantasies about him using a scarecrow in a corn field – weird – and nurses dreams that he might get her into the movies.  But once he’s seduced her, he rejects her.  Bad mistake.

Then there’s her parents, who are standing in the way of her dreams.  They will have to go.  And her only friend, her sister in law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), who encourages her dreams of stardom by suggesting they both audition for a touring dance troupe.

Pearl’s audition sequence is a tour de force of fantasy – the gauche vision in her mind of her dream – but it is Mitsy who gets the gig.  Another bad mistake. After the audition she goes back to with Pearl to the family farmhouse, which is by now hiding a gruesome secret or two and encourages Pearl to talk about her feelings in what becomes a chilling monologue of self revelation.  That woman should not be allowed anywhere near an axe.

On screen for virtually the whole film, Mia Goth is very good indeed.  She is not conventionally pretty but she has a striking presence, an expressive face and is at times appealing, at other times terrifying.  If you usually head for the exit when the credits start to roll, on this occasion, don’t leave before the final shot fades from the screen.  It’s a cinematic one off and it will haunt you.