Pearl (Mia Goth) uses the axe for chopping more than just wood. Photo courtesy of A24
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 13 (UPI) —Pearl, in theaters Friday, is a fine vehicle for a bravura Mia Goth performance. There’s just enough surrounding her to get viewers through the movie, but she is the reason it exists.
In the prequel to this year’s X, Pearl (Goth) is a young farm girl in 1918. Fans of X will recognize the farm, the lake and the alligator who swims in it.
While Pearl’s husband is in the Army, she is stuck caring for a catatonic father (Matthew Sunderland) and following orders from her strict mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright). Pearl dreams of becoming a famous dancer, but fans of X already know she stays on the farm her whole life.
Goth, who co-wrote the script with director Ti West, modulates her performance to begin as a sympathetic heroine, albeit a quirky one. Pearl’s dream of a luxurious life practicing her art is universal, but she also humps a scarecrow.
Pearl is a horror movie, though, so it is even less likely that Pearl will have a happy ending. She tries to escape to the movies, has a fling with a projectionist (David Corenswet) and auditions for a dance company.
However, when Pearl doesn’t get what she wants, she does not respond with dramatic pathos. Rather, she has violent fantasies, upon which she ends up acting.
The tension between Pearl and Ruth comes to a head. Once Pearl has a secret to cover up, her behavior grows more erratic.
By the end, West can frame long takes entirely in a closeup on Goth’s face as she delivers emotional monologues, or even when she says nothing at all. Goth isn’t afraid to color outside the lines of acceptable behavior to show Pearl’s deteriorating mental state.
To its credit, Pearl‘s connections to X are subtle enough that it still works as a standalone movie. Aside from the gator, the film also presents Pearl’s first exposure to pornography, which is the overt theme of X.
Aside from the character work, Pearl is rather basic. It is a small town tale with few characters, and just enough acts of violence to qualify in the horror genre.
West gives Pearl a Technicolor aesthetic which doesn’t quite work. Not only did color film come into commercial use decades after Pearl is set, but with digital photography it looks soft and blurry anyway.
The musical score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams does capture the melodramatic tenor of early Hollywood films.
Pearl makes it a point that 1918 was during the Spanish Flu pandemic. There are people wearing face coverings, but the film fails to make any pertinent observation about any parallels to the pandemic during which this very movie is released.
With lowered expectations, Pearl is perhaps more successful than X. Pearl only promises to portray a character’s descent into madness, and whatever else it lacks, it delivers that.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.