By Amelia Jacob, Film & TV Digital Editor
I wanted to enjoy Pearl (2022) just as much as I enjoyed its predecessor, the imperfect but nail-biting X (2022), that followed the gradual demise of a posse of aspiring pornstars who found themselves stuck at an isolated farmhouse in the Deep South with a pair of very unfriendly hosts.
Pearl takes the audience back in time from the grimy '70s to an early technicolour twentieth-century, a twisted version of The Wizard of Oz (1939). From X’s take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Pearl is not nearly as visually horrifying, but upon further inspection, is far more troubling.
Pearl is the brainchild of Ti West and Mia Goth, the latter a muse turned co-writer, as well as playing the titular protagonist. In my review the first time I watched X, I noted that one of my favourite aspects of the film was its playfulness, and Pearl, for its faults, takes the playfulness of X and sends it up into an amalgamation of a straight-forward slasher parody and an extravagant spoof of Golden Age cinema that aims high, yet doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Instead of the yellow brick road, Pearl (Mia Goth), young and married but often alone (her husband Howard is away at war), cycles into the only town for miles along a dusty track lined with fields of corn as far as the eye can see. Her Emerald City is an imposing cinema in which she swigs morphine and dreams of being up on the screen ‘like one of the pretty girls’.
Her life is isolated and suffocating; she’s virtually imprisoned inside the farmhouse in which her domineering mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), a German immigrant, rules with an iron fist over both Pearl and her wheelchair-bound father. Ruth is obsessively concerned with warding away influenza and staying away from the other townspeople on account of her fears of xenophobia – sound familiar?
Their climatic argument in the height of a thunderstorm is one of the film’s most compelling moments, and Wright is suitably terrifying.
Mia Goth, too, is discomforting as the film’s anti-heroine, but at times her performance crosses the boundary into ridiculousness. Several times in the cinema, I unintentionally laughed out loud, which wasn’t helped by Goth’s – at times – patchy accent and hyperactive sobbing.
Pearl is a character obsessed with image, clothes and beauty. Mia Goth’s portrayal of her manic attempts to cleave an identity for herself – quite literally – is empathetic, yet almost too much so.
Pearl’s brief sexual encounters with the scarecrow and the projectionist are bizarre yet have a definite level of restraint and even guilt. Her desires and fears don’t quite align with the hyper-sexual antagonist of X that she eventually becomes.
This psychological aspect of the film is where the film opens up the most interesting discussion, yet also where it falls mostly flat. For the majority of the runtime, Pearl relies on lazy shocks, despite the emotional torment hinted at within Pearl’s inner psyche, foregoing this potential and instead privileging sharp cuts to images of decayed and burned bodies, with details of blood and gore on full display.
The most compelling scene of the film is not these long, lingering close-ups, but rather the scene of confrontation between Pearl and her sister-in-law, during which I was genuinely uncomfortable, eagerly anticipating the moment of realisation and fear.
I only wish moments like these constituted more of Pearl, which had so much potential to take the success of X and create something even bigger and better.
Featured Image: Courtesy of IMDB
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