[Movie Review] PEARL
PEARL l A24
Editor’s Note: There are some light spoilers in this review. Proceed with caution.

PEARL is a vicious fairyland strewn with the wreckage of one very tender and broken soul. It is filled with the sweeping shots and vibrant colors of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. In our self-conscious time where irony is king, the earnest tone of PEARL confronted the audience at the screening I attended. PEARL is unquestionably made in the style of the great Hollywood films of the past. The film is so lovingly crafted that the color and style almost drip off the screen. It’s like watching a Judy Garland musical like Meet Me In Saint Louis, but with many more ax murders and less singing.

 

I believe that what West has said is that each one of the films of the newly announced trilogy takes the style of each film’s setting to examine how cinema affected people in the real world. X examined how low-budget independent film, explicitly pornography, had an effect on the people in the 70s. MaXXXine will examine the consequences of the 80s video era. But PEARL, even though it is set during the influenza pandemic stricken last year of World War One, is a reflection of the Golden Age of Cinema, which actually started around the same time as the First Great War. For PEARL, West has chosen the glorious Technicolor phase of Hollywood and the grand style of melodrama for his slasher origin story. It’s both bananas and very much on target.

PEARL is a gentle young woman in a bad situation. The film echoes the grandiose emotions and dreams inside Pearl so much that I have entertained the thought that the entire look of the film might all be a wanton daydream of Pearl’s. The setting and Pearl’s emotions are that of a Golden Age Technicolor melodrama. So captivated by the beauty on the screen, Pearl lives her life like she’s walking through one of those classic films. PEARL’s beauty is at first a soothing counterpoint to the harsh reality of Pearl’s life and slowly becomes an increasingly disturbing counterpoint around the film’s action. Even the blood is pretty, just like Pearl. It’s a devastating scarlet shade similar to the final girl dress that she wears.

Pearl is a desperate woman with one wish: to be loved. Pearl is also incredibly childlike and unable to deal with the demands put upon her by her mother and the lack of affection from her family. Mia Goth does an incredible job of making Pearl the most sympathetic character in the film. She is like a doe trembling in the woods who can become a tiger at any moment and both modes are absolutely believable. She is also, to her own detriment, very honest. That’s why I believe that she is more of a child than anything else, as portrayed by Goth, Pearl’s development is stuck somewhere in the early teens when sexual urges begin and rages can be intense. She doesn’t have the adult ability to lie and to know when to lie. Goth’s brilliant and incredibly sympathetic portrayal of Pearl avoids one of the biggest traps for the actor. Goth makes no value judgment of what Pearl is and what she does, therefore she makes the character of Pearl completely charming and worthy of empathy even as her behavior grows more bizarre. Goth shows all of the fierce emotional turmoil of Pearl through her inner self and the emotions that seep out of her skin and her eyes. Those eyes.

[Movie Review] PEARL
Courtesy A24
The work of all the actors in the film is great. The ensemble works together flawlessly. David Corenswet (“Hollywood”) as The Projectionist, Tandi Wright (The Returned) as Ruth, Emma Jenkins Purro as Misty, Matthew Sunderland (The Lost City of Z, The Nightingale) as Pearl’s Father, and Alistair Sewell (The Power Of The Dog) as Howard. Sunderland has one of the tricker roles as a man who was paralyzed by his bout with influenza but makes a meal out of the role anyway. The man “acts” with one of his eyes. Ruth is terribly stern, but with an undercurrent of sadness, as if this is a behavior that was passed down to her and that she knows no other way.

One of the things that I said about X was that Ti West was flexing and with PEARL, that flexing of his cinematic muscle continues. West is the director, co-writer with Mia Goth, and editor of PEARL. He has taken the story and morphed it into an entirely different style in this prequel effortlessly. West and Goth are using the standard storytelling practices of the Golden Age of Cinema to tell a story that is fresh and relevant in our own time. The time period even has a pandemic and has people walking around in masks, which is no accident, I’m sure. The setting and time period are a thematic bridge to our own modern-day situation. It allows us to relate to Pearl through our own experience in our own modern pandemic. It makes the century-old setting modern.

It’s really quite an innovative way to discuss the film’s ideas in a retro format that doesn’t seem dated at all. Think of how X felt when you watched it. It had all the 70s trappings but it felt like the now. West is obviously well versed in film history and the craft of these eras of filmmaking, so much so, that he makes taking up the style of each era seem effortless. There’s even a bit of the darkest humor in the film, but never at the expense of Pearl. It’s in the juxtaposition of the situation and emotional states of the characters, a situation that is common in melodrama.

To all you nascent filmmakers out there, you really should watch all those films on the Criterion Channel and Tubi from previous decades, other than the 80s and 90s. Your film education and your mental film library will be so much better for the time you spend learning more about different styles of filmmaking.

Courtesy A24

Eliot Rockett’s (The Innkeepers, The House Of The Devil) cinematography is brilliant and very much in keeping with the stylish cinematography of the Technicolor era and the work of Douglas Sirk. I just wish I could have seen the film again to be able to give more specific examples of this. The work done in production design by Tom Hammock (The Guest, X), the art direction of Ben Milsom (Thunderbirds Are Go), set decoration by Thomas Salpietro (X), costume design by Malgosia Turzanska (Hell Or High Water, X), and casting by Stu Turner (Evil Dead (2013), “Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power“) is fantastic and is totally in harmony with the film’s aesthetic. The sweep of the film’s score by Tyler Bates (John Wick, Guardians Of The Galaxy) is lovely and perfectly in tune with the film’s style.

The film is filled with such loving detail in so many aspects. I find it droll that West specifically names Douglas Sirk as one of the major cinematic influences in PEARL. Why? Not only because both directors have now made opulent and emotional melodramas, but because both Pearl’s family and Douglas Sirk are German. I find it very interesting that all the men in the film, with the exception of Howard, have descriptions rather than names for their characters. I am intrigued by the fact that The Projectionist plays his pivotal role in the story and, well, he’s a projectionist.

Another flourish is that character of Pearl and her story is also an inversion of the final girl trope. I don’t think this is really a spoiler at this point, but Pearl is both the Final Girl and the killer. Symbolized by her scarlet dress, Pearl is the implacable killer striding through the fields and the woman killing for her own survival. I don’t think it’s something that we think about when we cheer Final Girls, but they are killers. Unless you’re talking about an unkillable fiend like Michael Myers, every Final Girl has killed someone to end her nightmare. In You’re Next, Erin killed several people, including one cop, albeit inadvertently. Pearl really isn’t that different except that her idea of who the villains are is somewhat different from what most of us would consider evil.

Courtesy A24

The film does a really great job of putting you in Pearl’s shoes and giving you real empathy for the character. In particular, it is disturbing for this reviewer that I would absolutely give Pearl a hug and try to make her feel better, but my next thought would be “Oh no, what have I done?’ One of the film’s triumphs is that it can make you feel unashamedly sympathetic with Pearl despite what she’s done. It performs the real purpose of a backstory as it adds to the character in X and thus the film X itself since Pearl is a linchpin of the trilogy. It’s not just backstory for the sake of backstory.

PEARL’s greatest success is making you feel empathy for someone who really never had a chance and showing you that even killers are human too. It gives you a deep understanding of the psychology of Pearl and what drives her to make her tragic choices. Ultimately, I feel that the filmmakers, including Goth, have a deep understanding and sympathy for the character. It also shows you the very real effect that film can have on people. Pearl believes in that cinematic dream so much that she kills to even have a chance to get somewhere close to it.

As a highly imaginative person, I can relate. Part of it is her pathology, but part of it is the film fantasyland that makes everything in it seem so wonderful that Pearl must obtain it. Hollywood’s dream factory is so convincing that someone like Pearl can’t tell the difference. She also doesn’t realize the incredibly hard work that goes into the making of an image on the screen. Pearl is drawn by a mirage that isn’t really there, driven by her internal needs to do things that burn her soul, and in the final terrifying and heartrending moments of PEARL, is betrayed by that lovely and flickering illusion.

PEARL will be released in theaters on September 16, 2022.

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