A Star is Torn (apart)
How did this happen? How did a follow-up to one of the best horror films of recent years get here so quickly? A prequel, no less. And, even more bafflingly, how in the hell is it so bloody exceptional in its own right? This miracle work is simply not done in this day and age. And yet director Ti West and star/co-writer Mia Goth have done it, done it in glorious technihorror, and done it so well it hurts. It hurts like a rictus grin.
Following 2022’s gory, sexy, and downright sentimentally sweet X, a mere six months later (in the US, at least) and Pearl graces our screens, delving into the backstory of its predecessor’s main villain. On paper, it seems like a dreadful idea. Demystifying the enigmatic homicidal big bad of the piece (played brilliantly by Goth in X while also playing lead heroine Maxine in an expert dual role) in a style and tone wildly different to the dark dank horror of the first? To any studio, it’d hardly scream “moneymaker”. But Pearl’s strength lies in exactly that. It’s NOT the same film done in a different time. That wouldn’t make sense at all. It’s a fittingly different film in a fittingly different time. And all the better for it.
Pearl (Goth) is a frustrated young farm-girl who yearns for bigger things. Fame, recognition, freedom. Held back by her cruelly strict mother (Tandi Wright) and forced to care for her crippled father (Matthew Sunderland), she shows signs of a… slightly homicidal nature. But when an opportunity for her to show off her talents and seize her one shot arises, Pearl won’t let anything get in her way. Anything.
It’s an age-old tale of escape and aspiring to greatness, just with the odd bit of stabbing and sex with a scarecrow. Pearl is like any of us; anyone who doesn’t yearn to be more than what they are is, more than likely, lying. And, clearly having had bugger all of it in her upsettingly servile life, Pearl just wants to be loved. She wants to be a star. Goth masterfully balances Pearl’s innocence, her little girl-like voice simpering when she knows she’s been caught doing something bad, with jarring, focused anger when she reaches her limit. And come the final reel, lets just say she’ll make you want to cry. But just as you catch your breath, she’ll take it away again. It’s a damned good showcase for how damned good an actor Goth is, and every bit of praise for playing double the roles in X is doubly earned here with a single character capable of touching so many hearts. Before plunging a knife in them afterwards.
West and Goth, having co-scribed this instalment together, handle Pearl’s madness with both a sensitivity hardly seen in modern horror (what with everything being a bloody allegory these days) and with the sensationalism of the early slashers of the 60s, dialling up the psycho when they need. When Pearl stops smiling, the tension ramps up. Anything can happen. The film becomes as mercurial as Goth does. Being foisted with the duties of a stay-at-home daughter, stay-at-home-farmhand, and even, eventually, a stay-at-home wife, Pearl’s hardships never feel put-upon for the sake of it. Where Maxine Minx was at the dawn of the sexual revolution, Pearl is stuck in the then-typical role of conservative womanhood. Royally stuck. Anyone would go crazy.
Mirroring Pearl’s bubbly bright outlook amid the horror is the film’s Wizard Of Oz-ish visual style. West fills the frame with a sumptuous feast for the eyes, and shoots as though it were the era in which colour film truly dawned. It’s an effective choice that instantly invokes nostalgia, drawing you in before making you reel back. A bold one, too, for in any other hands it may have felt like parody, or a tonal clash so egregious that it’d be doomed to fail. But West never lets the style outweigh the story; he sets it up, he plonks the palate in front of you, then just lets it get out of the way. You’re already in. Why would he need to remind you?
For all the talent, there are hiccups. Where X‘s tone was consistently terrifying, Pearl‘s is somewhat less seamless. While this is clearly intentional, it renders the film something of an oddity; it’s not entirely scary to be a horror, but it’s a ruddy good character study. And while it may be Goth’s show, one can’t help but feel a degree of development for certain supporting players, such as Emma Jenkins-Purro’s Mitsy, Pearl’s sister-in-law,who largely feels like a hollow foil to Pearl herself. It’s a minor gripe, especially when Jenkins-Purro clearly has a ball playing her, but when formula sets in, it’s clear what her part in it all is.
Pearl is a rare thing. A rare thing to be cherished. It’s an effective horror prequel. It’s an unpretentious love-letter to cinema. It’s a grim portrait of a fractured psyche done well. It’s a showcase for one of our generations best new performers. It’s more than it had any right to be, even if its a teeny little bit less than it thinks it is. It is, like its name, a pearl.