As of right now, the horror genre in 2022 is being dominated by Ti West, who has followed up his throwback horror film, X (2022), with this spectacular prequel and companion piece. Pearl sends us back in time to highlight the upbringing of Pearl (Mia Goth), capturing the key events that shaped her into the woman she becomes in X.
From the moment the film opens, it’s clear as day that this is a grand homage to the Hollywood of old. If the old-school title cards weren’t enough of a giveaway, then the vintage score and scratchy audio cement this fact even more. It’s a complete vision that’s beautifully crafted by Ti West, who is able to use that old Hollywood aesthetic to accentuate some of the horror, especially through the score. It should be noted that this is not just any old Hollywood throwback, it’s specifically a twisted take on The Wizard of Oz. I won’t spoil which elements are clearly drawn from the 1939 classic, but it’s really not hard to spot. They’re not just throwaway parts of the film either, they’re ingrained in the film’s identity and only help emphasise the horrific vibe.
The strength of Ti West’s storytelling is seen in the fact that Pearl is more than just a prequel to X. It’s a companion piece that links back to X in every way, from the narrative and visuals to the character motivations and core themes. Because of that, it sets up a situation where the two films complement each other, making a back-to-back viewing infinitely rewarding. There’s even a hint of that remarkably clever link between porn and horror, a theme that’s at the forefront of X’s storytelling. Speaking of the story, co-written by Mia Goth, this is a much more character-focused venture than what X accomplishes. X had a bit more of an ensemble vibe and was more focused on emulating the feel of a 70s slasher. Pearl on the other hand is a very, very deep dive into the psyche of the titular character, with every moment focused exclusively on understanding what makes her tick.
Being a character study, this opens the floodgates for what is a truly breathtaking performance by Mia Goth. She’s phenomenal across every single scene to where I just couldn’t take my eyes off her. Every nuance in her performance is deliberate and adds to the character in ways dialogue can’t. She can go from being vulnerable in one scene to absolutely terrifying in the next without issue – it’s mesmerising to watch. Then there’s the monologue. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about. This seven-minute monologue is delivered in a single take and it’s an overload of emotion that Mia Goth conveys brilliantly. Just in case you needed another reason to see this film, just know you’ll be seeing what may be Mia’s best performance.
As expected, Eliot Rockett is the cinematographer on this film, after having delivered something truly stunning in X. Once again, he crafts a finished product that focuses intently on haunting close-ups and eerie wide shots, enhancing the horror and inducing a tense atmosphere. Coupled with the whole ‘old Hollywood’ aesthetic, this is just an objectively beautiful film to look at. There’s even some neat visual callbacks and connections to his work in X, which also plays into this being a companion piece. Gorgeous and terrifying, I can’t express enough how fresh and artistic this cinematography is.
In the end, Pearl is a surprising step up from what X delivered. Not because I thought it wouldn’t be great, but because X was such a well put-together horror flick that I didn’t think it would be topped by its own prequel. It may not be as traditional of a horror film, but it’s remarkably terrifying, brutal and suspense-filled in its own right. Led by Mia Goth, delivering one of the best performances of the year, this is a must-watch for any fan of horror, artistic cinema or that old Hollywood aesthetic.