Writer/director Ti West (Sacrament, The Innkeepers) and actor Mia Goth reteam for this prequel spin-off of the year’s earlier X, expanding on the backstory of X‘s aged villain (Goth) by showing us how she became such a broken and dangerous person long, long ago. Where X was more of an outright slasher/horror piece, Pearl is very much a character study and a showcase for Goth’s talents. We sympathize with her lonely farm life, where she cows to her stern mother (Tandi Wright) and cares for her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland). We hope she’ll hit it off with the town’s friendly movie theater projectionist (David Corenswet), and we root for her as she auditions for a traveling vaudeville show that could potentially rescue her from her miserable existence.
Since this character study is preamble to the birth of another film’s monster, you can probably surmise things don’t go according to Pearl’s wishes. And that’s when the horror finally comes into play, as we watch Pearl snap and seek vengeance on all the human obstacles in her path. Goth should be remembered at Award Season for her laid-bare performance, which includes a startling seven-minute mea culpa monologue.
West hyper-stylizes the film with heavy, traditional scoring and a color-saturated palette, all of which seems aimed to remind us of the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows). The direction is savvy for two reasons: film fans love homages, while younger audiences may need the tonal guidance for a film that unfolds at an appropriately measured pace.