The opening scenes of Pearl have the look of a 40s Technicolour Hollywood feature, right down to the swirling calligraphy of the titles. The remote farmstead where the main action takes place is eerily reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz. But it doesn’t take long to establish that the magic generated by rising horror star, Mia Goth, is going to be of a much darker variety than anything witnessed by Dorothy and the Munchkins. What might have happened to the girl from Kansas if she hadn’t been swept up by that whirlwind?
It’s 1919 and teenager Pearl (Goth) is struggling to come to terms with the harsh realities of the Spanish Flu pandemic. Her immigrant mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), is constantly worried about anti-German sentiment from the people in town, and spends much of her time scolding Pearl for her fanciful notions. Pearl’s unnamed father (Matthew Sunderland) has suffered a stroke and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to move a muscle, while Pearl’s own husband is fighting in occupied France. She’s left with repetitive chores around the farm and, in her spare moments, some powerful fantasises about becoming a star of stage and screen. She’s convinced that she has what it takes to get there, if only somebody will give her a chance.
In town to pick up supplies, she meets a handsome young man (played by David Corenswet), a projectionist at the local cinema, who takes the opportunity to show her some of the pornographic clips from his private collection. He assures her that a girl with her looks has everything she needs to become a sensation. When a church in town announces that they are looking for a dancer for a new travelling show, Pearl senses an opportunity to shine – and Lord help anyone who gets in her way…
Pearl is a prequel to director Ti West’s earlier offering, X (which I confess I haven’t seen), and it’s eventually destined to be part of a trilogy, but it hardly matters because this assured film, co-written by Goth and West, is strong enough to stand alone. Essentially a vehicle for Goth to strut her stuff, it’s a simple but affecting tale of a young woman afflicted by mental health issues, who becomes increasingly unable to separate reality from dreams. She also has an unfortunate predilection for doing unspeakable things with a pitchfork, aided and abetted by a friendly local alligator – a useful addition when it comes to disposing of evidence.
There are some genuinely unnerving scenes here – a sequence where Pearl enjoys leisure time with a scarecrow is a particular stand out and I also love the dance sequence where what Pearl sees in her head is markedly different from what’s actually occurring. It’s this stark contrast between the real and the imagined that is the true strength of this remarkable feature, and it’s clear from the outset that Goth – if not Pearl – is destined for stardom.
Pearl won’t be for everyone – there are some bloodthirsty scenes in the mix that are not recommended for those of a nervous disposition – but the film is horribly compelling and maintains its momentum right up to its extraordinary final scene.