Polygon has an on-site team at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival covering the horror, comedy, drama and action films that aim to dominate the cinematic conversation as we head into awards season. This review was published in conjunction with the film’s TIFF premiere.
When horror writer and director Ti West introduced his gory slasher from the era X There was a surprise reveal at SXSW in March 2022: an end credits trailer for a prequel, pearlwhich would fill in the backstory of Xs ruthless main villain. To the pearlis North American Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, West pulled a similar ploy with a teaser and announcement for a third film, MaXXXineas a continuation of X. Where X is an ode to the raw, gritty, 1970s-style independent horror films, says West MaXXXine will be inspired by the VHS boom of the 80’s – where the tracking lines, color noise and synths score points MaXXXine Teasers certainly underline.
This works out pearl as the middle film in a trilogy (so far, at least) and also as the biggest outlier of the series. With stronger optics than Xa phenomenal and ambitious performance by Mia Goth, but also a more empty and meandering plot, pearl loses the fun parts of Ti West’s pastiche. At the same time, it still delivers plenty of thrills and killer moments. It’s both a vividly painted nightmare and a showcase for its star.
X is firmly anchored as a homage to the independent film boom of the 1970s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, seen through the eyes of the porn industry. Mia Goth is outstanding, taking on dual roles as last girl Maxine and as Pearl, the killer who’s after her. X has plenty of laughs, gory kills, imaginative edits, and even some poignant commentary on show business and filmmaking aspirations.
pearl turns back the clock to tell Pearl’s story from 1918 when she is a radiant young woman (still played by Mia Goth) with big dreams of making it into the cinema. The problem is that she’s stuck in a world that’s too small for her. Her husband Howard is in Europe fighting the war to end all wars. Meanwhile, Pearl lives on her parents’ farm under the tutelage of her repressive German immigrant mother (Tandi Wright) and cares for her wheelchair-bound father (Matthew Sunderland) during the height of the Spanish flu pandemic. where people wear masks over their mouths and noses on the streets, avoid close contact or indoor spaces, and constantly talk about the pandemic. Everywhere Pearl goes there is a cacophony of coughing. What a coincidence!
Pearl hates her limited life under her mother’s eyes and judgement, and the only escape she finds is in the cinema. She dreams of being a dancer on the big screen, in front of large, admiring crowds. In the meantime, she dances to her animals, which she names after her favorite movie stars. She also occasionally kills one of them to feed the alligator that lives in the nearby pond. When she meets the self-serving projectionist (David Corenswet) at her local cinema, he sells her big dreams of going to Europe and working as a dancer. He also grooms her and shows her a bachelor movie – the kind that paved the way for indie porn shoots X. Suddenly, Pearl sees a way out and is willing to do anything to achieve it.
The main reason to see pearl is Mia Goth’s mesmerizing tour de force performance. She infuses the role with enough innocence and wishful thinking to make viewers excited about her, even if they already know about her future crimes and are appalled by her choices in the present. The look of the film may be inspired by Technicolor wonders The Wizard of OzGoth’s performance is straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psychofriendly and charming one minute, frightening and confused the next.
Where X was heavily inspired by the cheap DIY aesthetic of early indie slashers, pearl aims to replicate colorful visions in the style of Mary Poppins. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett imbues the film with bright, vibrant colors, a soft palette and dreamy quality, while the score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams gives the film a stirring symphonic sound that makes Pearl’s journey seem as grand as Maria’s The sound of music. pearl is purely pastiche in style, but it works beautifully, and it resonates as something that expresses West’s awe, rather than parody or simple imitation.
The problem is that the pastiche doesn’t feel as purposeful as it did before X. The very specific 1918 shot seems to be there for no other reason than to include a COVID allegory. It’s not about specific film references that don’t reflect 1910s filmmaking, and it doesn’t comment on conservatism or censorship in the film, given that the setting is set decades before the Hays Code turned Hollywood into a prisoner of moral conservatism.
The script co-written by West and Goth doesn’t do much to deepen Pearl’s character – and why should it? She’s the thinnest excuse for a character in X, an old-age villain who murders young, attractive, sexually active people out of petty jealousy and spite, mostly to instill a wry sense of the notion that old people still want to feel loved and desired. With pearl, West and Goth have had a chance to explore the environment that created Pearl’s sexual and homicidal urges, but they leave it largely to the viewer’s imagination. As X before, pearl presents its main character as little more than a stock slasher movie psycho with selfish ambitions, no moral compass, and an appetite for blood.
pearl is a showcase for Mia Goth as a horror star: culminating in a monologue in which West holds the camera to her face for more than five minutes as she reveals what drives her. West paints a pretty picture in the film, building beautiful Technicolor nightmares, aided by painted backgrounds and bright colors. But the pieces don’t add up to anything more than a glossy finish. pearl going to show that just because you can Making a movie in secret doesn’t mean you have to do it.
pearl debuts in theaters September 16.
https://www.polygon.com/reviews/23351534/pearl-review-mia-goth-ti-west-prequel Pearl Review: Mia Goth is stunning in a flawed horror prequel