Pearl Review: Mia Goth Shines in This Technicolor Terror

During the development of the '70s-set slasher X, filmmaker Ti West began developing a backstory for the character of Pearl, played by Mia Goth in old-age makeup. Quarantine protocols in New Zealand due to the coronavirus pandemic offered up a rare opportunity for the production, with the quarantine time allowing West to collaborate with Goth so deeply on Pearl's backstory that the pair ended up crafting a complete script for her origins. Once production wrapped on X, A24 Films greenlit production on Pearl, with the prequel announced as a surprise at the world premiere of X. The end result feels exactly like what was described: a rich yet not entirely necessary history of a character that doesn't recontextualize X significantly, though the layered and unhinged performance from Goth and entirely unconventional aesthetic from West somehow seems to make it all work. Pearl almost proves how, even with an ancillary tale, West and Goth can make a more riveting project than most other horror films this year.

Set in 1918, Pearl (Goth) is trapped at home with her mother (Tandi Wright) and debilitated father (Matthew Sunderland) while her husband is fighting in World War I. As Pearl dreams of becoming a dancer, she also feels as though she has a darkness inside of her, one which her parents also seem aware of but won't realize the full extent of until it's too late.

From A Cure for Wellness to Suspiria to High Life and to X, Goth has proven on multiple occasions that she's an absolute powerhouse of a performer, so it's no surprise that she commands every scene she's in. Even if the entire concept of Pearl is a bit superfluous, Goth manages to be endlessly watchable, navigating both the specific proclivities she has towards sex and violence, while also using those themes as a conduit for anyone who feels like they're destined for a life outside their own yet is also shamed for having ambitions outside the norms. Goth manages to make both Pearl's innocence and insanity equally believable and equally empathetic, with one relentless monologue in an unbroken shot being more than enough reason to prove how Goth's genre legacy is only just getting started.

Throughout his career, West might mostly be known as a genre filmmaker, though he's refused to be defined by one corner of horror. He's delivered slow-burn throwbacks on 16mm with The House of the Devil and horror-comedies with The Innkeepers and found-footage cult investigations with The Sacrament. The filmmaker continues to reinvent himself and keep audiences on their toes, not only with the southern-fried X, but going even further with the technicolor nightmare of Pearl. Unsettling stories featuring highly saturated color palettes aren't entirely new, as a number of Italian filmmakers embraced such a look throughout the '70s, but we have rarely seen such a look applied to this point in time in American history. Rather than the neon-soaked discotheques or moody blends of red lighting and obsidian shadows, we get bursting skies, lush pastures, and romantic red dresses, evoking a feeling akin to much more pleasant narratives. The look of the film, in conjunction with the sweeping and lighthearted score from Tyler Bates and Tim Williams, fully transports the viewer to a bygone era in cinematic history. The embrace of iconic elements of technicolor films is so authentic that, were select sequences of violence to be axed (pun intended) from the narrative entirely, it could authentically pass for a whimsical story about a woman merely hoping to leave her small town behind. This aesthetic also makes for one of the most unique-looking horror efforts in years, given that nostalgic efforts so rarely aim to evoke this filmmaking era.

Continuations of unsettling stories are a risky affair, and Pearl, unfortunately, suffers from many of the shortcomings of its predecessors. Even though it's an impressive enough achievement on its own, it doesn't retroactively enrich the actual storyline of X in any significant way that audiences themselves couldn't have extrapolated from what we saw in that outing. Given the tendency of many horror movies to demystify elements with each follow-up, we couldn't quite say Pearl has a detrimental effect on X, yet by not entirely making itself necessary to the enjoyment of the source material, it's not imperative for X fans to also consume the carnage of this film. On its own merits, Pearl feels like a Psycho-esque character study as told through the lens of The Wizard of Oz, making it unlike anything else you'll see in theaters this year. Though, as a companion piece to X, it feels about as enriching as looking up the IMDb page of a film you loved to read the trivia section. Entertaining for sure, yet not nearly as effective as merely consuming the film on its own merits.

Even if it lacks the urgency or engaging ensemble of X, Pearl proves that both West and Goth are undeniable talents in the genre space who get to add even more accomplishments to their already impressive accolades. With a rumored third film set to explore an all-new corner of cinema, we can't wait to see what horrors the pair has in store for unsuspecting audiences.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Pearl lands in theaters on September 16th.