Director Ti West’s new film, Pearl, is a prequel, but that hardly matters. Yes, it is narratively connected to X, the springtime release, written and directed by West, that paid tribute to most sordid cinema of the nineteen-seventies with its story of a band of fledgling filmmakers who pick the wrong remote farm to rent out for the shooting of a porno. Pearl takes place on the same rural property some sixty years earlier, and at least one key character is present in both films. But a key, very welcome strength of Pearl is that it isn’t reliant on the preceding feature. It’s not littered with Easter eggs, nor does it strain to serve the perceived preferences of a volatile fanbase. The film operates independently and is all the better for it.
Set in 1918, as the U.S. is reeling from World War I and the influenza pandemic, Pearl follows the title character (Mia Goth, returning from X and diversifying her participation to executive produce and co-write the screenplay), a dissatisfied farm girl with a domineering German mother (Tandi Wright) and an invalid father (Matthew Sunderland). She dreams of escaping her provincial life to be a star dancer on the silver screen. At the same time, there are signs of serious disturbance within Pearl, which at least has the fringe benefit of providing some sustenance to the alligator that menacingly glides through the murky water of the pond on the family property. If gruesome murders must take place, at least the wildlife benefit.
Just as X reveled in a stepped-on seventies aesthetic, Pearl is a stylistic tribute to the Technicolor glories of Old Hollywood, with particular top hat tips to The Wizard of Oz. West crafts this horror film with lavish care. The admirable patience that’s been a hallmark of his storytelling for a long time is present, and its coupled with a amped-up visual flair that includes the occasional jolt of a particularly fanciful flourish. There’s a pleasing cheekiness to the film’s plentiful references to diseasing-skirting masks, societal fatigue over big sweeping challenges, and other cyclically topical details. That clever tomfoolery is secondary, though, to the psychological acuity and deeply felt rendering of a young woman in a mental crisis with no real resources to address it beyond the fight-or-flight-but-flight-is-denied-her instincts that invariably result in dirt and splintery wood stained red.
Laudable as West’s directing, editing, and co-writing are, Pearl belongs to Goth. She’s wounded, ravenous, lovelorn, and volcanic in the role. Goth delivers mightily in two moments worthy of a standing ovation — one built on a long monologue and the other the closing shot of the film — but she’s outstanding throughout, miraculously delivering a performance that has the breadth of caricature and the depth of an internally focused novel. Her acting is like Shelley Duvall overlaid with Daniel Day-Lewis, and it’s riveting in every last particular.