“Break a leg,” as the famous showbiz saying goes. However, in the case of Ti West’s Pearl, about a young farm girl with dreams of stardom that serves as a prequel to his enjoyably grisly, Texas Chainsaw-invoking flick X, it feels less a case of cracking a few bones than hacking off entire limbs with a rusty axe and feeding them to a hungry alligator.
Such gory exploits might at first seem the perfect precursor to West’s accomplished 70s-set slasher about a group of adult filmmakers who meet the sticky end they weren’t quite expecting while shooting a dirty picture at a secluded farmhouse. But Pearl is an altogether more slippery, beguiling beast. It is a peculiar blend of grindhouse and pathos; a strange Carrie meets The Wizard of Oz genre mashup with suitably generous lashings of bloodshed, humour, and heartbreak.
To talk about Pearl without spoiling X is no easy task, but the film essentially traces the lineage of a character played by Mia Goth back six decades to 1918 where she spends her days tending to various farmyard animals and completing daily chores while dreaming of seeing her name in lights. History buffs will be quick to note the significance of the year: the final months of a devastating global conflict compounded by the Great Influenza epidemic, a backdrop that injects the film’s retro, Technicolour aesthetic with a striking, stinging pertinence.
The feeling of isolation exacerbated by the flu crisis only intensifies the already fraught relationship between Pearl and her German mother, Ruth (an icy Tandi Wright), as they both care for her incapacitated father (Matthew Sunderland). Pearl has aspirations of leaving the farm far behind – ideas fuelled by the movie screenings she secretly attends while picking up supplies in town – but they are quashed at every turn by the increasingly abusive Ruth, who projects the failures and frustrations of her own caged existence onto her daughter. But there is something sinister simmering away inside Pearl: a deadly concoction of violence and desire initially satisfied by bludgeoning geese and dry humping scarecrows that soon becomes more destructive after she meets a charming but exploitative local projectionist (David Corenswet).
Just as he did with both X and perhaps his most accomplished genre piece to date, The House of the Devil, West shrewdly lays out the familiar horror conventions – the remote setting, the abusive parent, the wide-eyed girl exposed to the leering, unforgiving world she’s not equipped for – only to slyly subvert them. As her murderous impulses grow, Pearl becomes an intriguing character study with Pearl herself striking an equally intriguing figure of contradiction. She is both fiercely driven and painfully damaged; world weary yet hopelessly vulnerable. In the end, she assumes both the role of final girl and merciless villain, a compelling development captured best during her palm-sweating third-act monologue that veers wildly from the terrifying to the tragic.
In fact, were it not for the fascinating performance at its centre, much of what unfurls in Pearl might otherwise be dismissed as little more than schlocky splatter fare. And while audiences are likely to be divided by West’s ambitious, thorny film, as the titular day dreamer-turned-axe wielder, Goth – who also has a co-writing credit here – is irrefutably magnetic. If she wasn’t already considered a captivating screen presence after collaborations with the likes of Claire Denis and Lars von Trier in recent years, Pearl is truly her star-making vehicle. It’s a turn of both physicality and nuance; a delicate balance of immense excess and quiet restraint. She is devilishly delightful to watch – a description that, rather fittingly, might also be applied to the film itself. The grinning, pain-laden stare she gives as the film’s end credits start to roll – a final, haunting portrait of madness and melancholy – is, quite simply, one of the images of the year.
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_GeorgeNash for more movie musings