‘Pearl’: Review of Venice | Comments

Dir: Ti West. WE. 2022. 105 min.

A horror spin-off that feels like both a lark and a serious attempt to deepen a murderous character, pearl is a terrific showcase for actress and co-writer Mia Goth, playing the role of a young woman whose grip on her sanity is rapidly slipping. Ti West’s prequel to Xwhich opened in March, veers away from that film’s slasher sensibilities, turning to a gripping study in weirdness that only belatedly produces the kind of shocks one might expect – but when they do, they’re more emotional than is often the case for this blood-soaked genre. This new installment stands out with its own disturbing and strange merits.

A gem of its kind

Screening in Venice and Toronto — the latter festival screening the film in its Midnight Madness section — pearl opens in the United States on September 16. X grossed around $16 million worldwide on a shoestring budget, with West shooting the follow-up in secret at the same time. No question pearl will be a niche business proposition, but although familiarity with X will certainly help potential audiences, viewers could walk into the new film cold and still be satisfied enough with its fascinating portrayal of madness.

Set in 1918 – during another pandemic, the Spanish flu – pearl features Goth as the title character, who was the main antagonist of the 1979 set X. Living at home with her crippled father (Matthew Sunderland) and repressive and harshly critical mother (Tandi Wright), Pearl feels abandoned and longs for her husband Howard, who has gone to fight in the First World War. But once she falls in love with the handsome, anonymous projectionist at her local theater (David Corenswet), she begins to dream of a life away from her small town; her aspirations bolstered by an upcoming audition to be part of a traveling dance troupe.

X paid homage to 1970s horror classics, so much so that it was almost as if the film was a forgotten relic of the era. For pearlWest cited various cinematic benchmarks – in particular, live-action Disney family films such as Mary Poppins — and there’s a dark edge of satirical menace running through this prequel, which at times seems to be hard-wired into Pearl’s fragile mental state. At first it’s clear that this woman is deeply disturbed – most people don’t kiss with random scarecrows – but pearl keeps viewers nervous as we slowly begin to recognize the extent of his delusions and frantic need to be loved.

West, who wrote the screenplay with Goth, gives the proceedings a just-for-fun slack without succumbing to smug self-indulgence. Although pearl certainly enjoys gently ridiculing the apparent cuteness of early 20th century Americana, there’s a bit of spice to the story as well. The parallels to our own paranoid pandemic era are obvious, but the image’s sun-splashed images are often offset by the growing darkness swirling inside Pearl. Her closest friend, pretty blonde sister-in-law Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro), is such a positive person that she initially seems like someone who could pull Pearl from the brink. Instead, Misty’s fate becomes one of the film’s most heartbreaking sequences, with West’s deceptively simple directing belying the amount of craftsmanship that goes into the moment’s brutal outcome.

Goth resists horror movie clichés while depicting Pearl’s building psychosis. There’s an internal logic to the character’s festering angst, despondency and rage all tied into one utterly believable package. Whether it’s delivering a cathartic monologue or performing a decidedly demented dance number, Goth keeps Pearl grounded just enough that when the inevitable killing spree begins, we understand what drove her to it – even though some of her victims don’t deserve his wrath. It has become strictly for the actors to talk about being invested in making their villains “likable”, but Goth does indeed manage to turn Pearl into some sort of tragic character – a deeply unhappy person desperate to become one of those stars she sees on the big screen, cursed never to know so much fame and fortune.

His small-scale ambitions, pearl nonetheless features strong supporting turns, including newcomer Jenkins-Purro as Rosy Misty, who realizes too late just how damaged Pearl really is. And Wright sinks her teeth into a prototypical tyrannical mother role, giving our heroine plenty of reasons to want to break free. On paper, it’s just one more horror movie about a tormented individual who eventually breaks down, but pearl turns out to be a little pearl of its kind.

Production Company: Little Lamb

International sales: A24, [email protected]

Producers: Kevin Turen, Harrison Kreiss, Jacob Jaffke, Ti West

Screenplay: Ti West & Mia Goth

Director of photography: Eliot Rockett

Production Design: Tom Hammock

Editing: Ti West

Music: Tyler Bates, Tim Williams

Main Cast: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro

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