Film Review: “Pearl” — A Star is Born
By Nicole Veneto
Move over Patrick Bateman, there’s a new axe-wielding psychopath for impressionable young cinephiles to project themselves onto in town.
Pearl, directed by Ti West. Now playing at AMC Boston Common, AMC Assembly, and theaters throughout New England.
For as long as cinema has existed, so too have scream queens. Though the moniker “scream queen” wasn’t coined until the advent of the modern slasher in the 1970s, plenty of actresses have made a name for themselves as horror movie heroines, villainous vamps, and/or psychotic women misusing all kinds of sharp objects: the silent-era had Theda Bara (most of whose films are sadly lost), European arthouse horror had Barbara Steele, and Alfred Hitchcock had his cadre of bleach-blonde beauties like Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren to menace on (and off) screen. The pantheon of cinematic scream queens runs the gamut from Oscar-nominated A-listers like Jamie Lee Curtis and Toni Collette to low-budget B-movie legends like Linnea Quigley and Katharine Isabelle. As of 2022, three actresses in particular have proven themselves deserving of the title: Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Last Night in Soho), Maika Monroe (It Follows, Watcher), and the aptly named Mia Goth.
Making her screen debut in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2, Goth established herself throughout the 2010s with supporting roles in ornate genre films like Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness, Claire Denis’ High Life, and Luca Guadagnino’s exquisite reimagining of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. This past March, Goth finally broke through as a leading lady in her own right with Ti West’s retro-slasher X, a pornalicious gore-fest about a group of wannabe adult filmmakers whose attempt to make a dirty movie on an elderly couple’s decrepit Texas farm ends in a bloody massacre. Playing dual roles — aspiring porn actress Maxine Minx and her homicidal elderly doppelgänger Pearl — Goth delivered a virtuoso performance as X’s final girl and its psychotic (yet inherently tragic) villain. If you were wise enough to stick around after the credits, then you know X is West’s first stab at a brand new horror franchise for A24. Pearl, the second entry in the X-verse, comes just six months after X premiered at South by Southwest, screening out of competition at Venice to add some much needed gore and viscera to the prestigious film festival.
Filmed in secret after X wrapped production, Pearl is a prequel-cum-origin story set in the waning days of World War I, where the titular heroine’s dashed dreams of fleeing the family farm for Hollywood stardom inspired her own murderous impulses. West has found a muse and a creative collaborator in Goth, whose contributions here include a co-writing credit in addition to her delightfully unhinged performance. In contrast to X’s grimy grindhouse veneer, Pearl is a horse of a totally different color. Visually, it’s a depraved Douglas Sirk film trading in X’s homages to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for The Wizard of Oz’s Technicolor fantasia. Tonally, Pearl is high camp goodness, couching Pearl’s melodramatic descent into madness with the comedic eccentricities of Mary Harron’s American Psycho. Move over Patrick Bateman, there’s a new axe-wielding psychopath for impressionable young cinephiles to project themselves onto in town.
With husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) off fighting the Great War in Europe, poor, doe-eyed Pearl is left tending to the family farm and her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) under the strict, watchful eye of her overbearing German mother Ruth (Tandi Wright, her taciturn demeanor a mix of Piper Laurie’s Margaret White and Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West). Like Dorothy Gale, Pearl wishes to be whisked somewhere far, far away and over the rainbow — to Hollywood specifically, where she dreams of making it big as a chorus girl in “the pictures” she loves to see whenever Ruth sends her into town for daddy’s morphine. After attending a matinee one afternoon, Pearl meets the theater’s handsome young projectionist (David Corenswet), who charms her with sweet talk about how she’s pretty enough to be up on the silver screen herself. Their meet cute is one of several illuminating scenes that recontextualize the withered Pearl we meet decades later in X; her starry-eyed ambition betrays a profound sense of loneliness and abandonment, clearly starved of intimacy and familial love. She only has her dreams to sustain her.
The chance to escape a lifetime of domestic drudgery arrives when Pearl’s sister-in-law Mitzy (newcomer Emma Jenkins-Purro) informs her that a touring dance-troupe will be holding auditions at the local church. Determined to make the cut, Pearl’s aspirations inevitably curdle into homicidal mania. She annihilates anyone who dares to stand in the way of her fantasy: mom Ruth is roasted alive and thrown into the basement after her dress catches fire during a heated argument; Pearl suffocates her father to death in a horrific mercy killing (he’d just be dead weight on the path to fame anyways); and the projectionist gets a pitchfork through the heart when he reneges on a post-coital promise to take Pearl to Europe with him. It’s all a lot funnier than it is disturbing thanks to Goth’s unwavering commitment to the bit. Still, an underlying tragedy lurks beneath every over-the-top kill. We know Pearl is fated to live and die on that farm no matter what, as much a victim of historical circumstance as she is of her own fractured psyche. The (obvious) metatextual significance of Goth’s dual roles in X comes into sharp focus here. Because she is portrayed by the same actress, Pearl possesses the very same X-factor that Maxine has: the only difference being one never caught a break and the other happened to be fucking a sleazebag whose attempt to jump on the XXX home video market got him killed.
Much has already been made about Goth’s performance, particularly her climactic six-minute monologue where she tearfully confesses all her crimes to Mitzy in preparation for a heart-to-heart with Howard when he returns home. Delivered in a single, unbroken take, Goth peels layer after emotional layer away to unveil Pearl’s sorrow, guilt, and rage, mascara bleeding down her cheeks like the Tin Man’s oily tears: “Lord must have been generous to you, he never answers any of my prayers. I don’t know why, what did I do? What is wrong with me? Please just tell me so I can get better! I don’t wanna end up like mama!” The horror movie monster recedes and in its place sits a young woman who wants and aches for something more out of life than the hand she’s been dealt.
It’s no doubt a fantastic monologue, but more revealing is the preceding scene where Pearl dances her heart out for the troupe judges. It is a vaudevillian number complete with rear projection wartime photography and a chorus line of rosy-cheeked soldier girls — she is turned away for being neither blonde nor young enough to their liking. “But that’s the best dancing I’ve ever done in my life,” Pearl says, voice cracking in disbelief as her confidence crumbles into a hysterical crying jag familiar to anyone who’s borne the brunt of rejection.
Like X, Pearl will have its detractors, either because they’re exhausted by A24’s brand of “elevated horror” (neither Pearl nor X exactly fit that mold, but I get the point) or because beautiful women on the edge of a psychotic breakdown brandishing knives/axes/pitchforks just isn’t their thing. Pearl is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, gleefully indulging in the cinematic legacy of monstrous women while also speaking to the deeper emotional truths that spawn cinema’s scream queens.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.