Review: ‘Pearl’ delivers technicolor terror and killer talent

Midway through Pearl, Ti West’s prequel to X, a star is born. Mia Goth takes us through a mournful, confessional monologue that makes it clear she is an actor who has the range to compete with the best.

In this monologue, our titular antihero is confessing her various crimes and regrets to her sister-in-law, Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro). It’s a long and winding speech where we learn all about Pearl’s regrets, rage, and grief over the hand she’s been dealt in life. Goth deftly moves from shameful tears to hot anger, to cold determination, all over the course of a few minutes.

We’re with her through every experience she recounts while the camera stays on her face. The pure empathy that monologue generates almost makes you forget we’re watching the origin story of X’s unlikely and ruthless villain. The larger-than-life feelings Pearl experiences are brought to life around her through the technicolor-inspired cinematography and shot composition, making for a beautiful, sometimes moving, and delightfully unhinged journey.

As alluded to in X, Pearl believes her youth is being wasted. She’s been given the hardscrabble life of a farm girl, dealing with her stern German mother, and caring for her disabled father when all she really wants is to be in the movies she loves. So what if she has to kill a few people along the way? What does a little bloodshed add up to against the power and pleasures of being seen and desired? At least that’s how Pearl sees it.

She will do whatever it takes to get off of the farm, even if we know she never makes it out in the end. The inevitability of Pearl’s life makes her a tragic figure, even in her more terrifying turns. While the film is clearly indebted to melodramas and technicolor spectaculars of the 1940s and 1950s, there is plenty of humor and horror around every corner. West never lets us forget we’re watching a slasher, even if it looks like it’s in technicolor.

Image via A24

The result is something unique. If X was a treatise on aging and filmmaking by way of the 1970s slasher, then Pearl is a bloodbath by way of The Wizard of Oz. It feels more preoccupied with the violence of repression and sacrifices some women had to (and still have to) endure at the time, but it’s all the better for it because the delights of this movie are in the colorful, curated details.

One of the best things about X was West’s clear admiration and attention to detail in his craft. It was hard to remember at times that X was something made in the 2020s, and not the 1970s. This attentiveness is on full display here, too, with every set piece and costuming choice grounding us in his ambitious aesthetic choices.

There are even echoes of Golden Age Hollywood musicals, and while no one sings, an audition turns into a morbid version of a Gene Kelly showstopper in Pearl’s mind, and we are right with her. We are also with her for the gruesome kills she commits along the way. Those worried there wouldn’t be as much carnage here need not: there are plenty of inventive, squirm-worthy dispatches here to watch (even if it’s through parted fingers).

Ultimately, Pearl is a unique and successful slasher prequel. It does something truly noteworthy in the genre: making a big swing through its melodrama-meets-slasher formula, and hitting it out of the park. It won’t be for everyone, and that’s okay! Folks who loved X will find plenty of daring work here, from the craftsmanship of the film to the performances. Come for the technicolor kills, and stay for the audacious, empathetic portrait of a new classic slasher villain.

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