Mia Goth. To misuse some internet slang from three years ago: That’s it. That’s the tweet.
Goth is mind-bogglingly great in Pearl as the title character. She edges past Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once as my favorite lead actress performance that I’ve seen so far this year. Pearl is the prequel to the similarly good X, which Goth also starred in (via a double role). She was good in X, but she’s better in Pearl. Here, she plays the young version of the killer old lady in X, a lonely young farmer in 1918 who lives with her chilly mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright) and her vegetative father (Matthew Sunderland) on the rustic Texas homestead where X is set 60 years later.
Where X used ‘70s exploitation-style horror and smut as aesthetic inspiration, Pearl creates a pastiche to midcentury musicals and melodrama. You know what that means: eye-gouging faux-Technicolor with blistering reds and blues in maximum saturation. It’s La La Land, but with stabbing instead of singing. Damn do I love these colors. (It does beg the question of why a film set in the 1910’s is taking stylistic cues from the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, but I’m not going to complain.)
Goth plays Pearl with equal parts sympathetic sweetness and psychopathic violence. The latter is exacerbated as her world becomes more and more of a hopeless dump. Her husband is off at war, her mom emotionally abuses her, the world is shutting down due to the Spanish Flu, and her one escape — the movie house — only increases her yearning for something grander in life. Things hit a tipping point one fateful week. First, Pearl meets a worldly European projectionist who personifies Pearl’s illusory dreams of glamour. Second, a major dance audition comes to town. Pearl decides that it’s Hollywood or bust for her. This is a horror movie, not A Star is Born, so “bust” is inevitable; though there’s some suspense to just to what degree and ends things implode.
Scene after scene in Pearl gets to be a showcase for Goth’s preternatural dynamism: There’s the oft-giffed dance scene, which is terrific, and the final shot which immediately enters my pantheon of great movie-closers (think Nights of Cabiria crossed with Joker). But her very best scene might be an extended, single-take monologue late in the film where she displays more self-awareness than she’s previously shown, as if she’s just discovered it herself due to her empowerment-via-murder.
My only hesitation with the film is that it feels like it pulls its punches. The deaths are never so spiked in black humor as the ones in X. And despite the frankness of sex in some moments, that theme is discarded without too much consideration. In short, Pearl could have been maybe one shade nastier.
But it’s still my favorite horror movie of the year, and one of my favorites of the year of any genre. It has style to spare and moves quickly. The character study is a tragic slow-motion carriage wreck. It works great as a standalone, but also has many echoes with X that enrich both films. The pair of films are pretty equal in stature, but I give the edge to Pearl. (Bring on MaXXXine.)
And once more with feeling: Mia Goth.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film