The “star is born” narrative has become an American mythology in its own right — a young girl is plucked out of her humdrum life to share her talents and live amongst the stars. It is the dream circulated by Hollywood from its earliest days — its own iteration of the original American Dream.
Ti West’s new psychological horror film “Pearl” — co-written by the leading actress Mia Goth — distorts this image of stardom, as it follows a troubled young woman who is obsessed with these fairytales of fame to nightmarish ends.
In Ti West’s film “X” from earlier this year, Goth stunned as she took on the dual roles of Maxine — a wide-eyed girl who would do anything to make it big — and a jealous, murderous old woman who pined for her hopeful youth named Pearl. Goth’s fascinating performance of the two characters left the lingering feeling that these women were a dark mirror of one another, destined to be destroyed by the same desires.
“Pearl” turns back the clock on the villainous antagonist in “X” to the days when she was just as fresh-faced and hopeful as Maxine in an attempt to understand what truly makes her tick.
In 1918, Pearl is a farmer’s daughter who has become restless with the mediocrity of her life. Her husband is away fighting the Great War, and she is forced to stay at home with her controlling mother, played by Tandi Wright, and her father, played by Matthew Sunderland, who has fallen gravely ill. Her only recluse is the “pictures” — the early silent films which she is able to briefly marvel at when she travels to town.
More than anything, she believes she is special and deserves to be up on that screen, dancing like the stars. After all, Pearl is different from anyone else — but not because of her dancing skills. In actuality, she is battling increasingly powerful homicidal tendencies that are making her feel intensely isolated from other people.
Despite this sinister content, the incredible cinematography work of Eliot Rockett turns the world of “Pearl” into a technicolor wonderland, harkening back to classic Hollywood adventures like “The Wizard of Oz” in the most foreboding way possible. Every color jumps off the screen in vivid hues — a lovely effect that becomes unsettling in the film’s violent moments.
This dreamy feeling is also accentuated by the creative directorial work of West. Through the eyes of his camera, everything in “Pearl” looks like a demented theatrical production — perfectly placed and centered. This hyperrealistic beauty of the film’s technical elements provides insight into the way Pearl herself is losing her grip on reality.
What truly ties this nostalgic, theatrical feel together is the beautiful, sweeping score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams. Its classic orchestral sounds paint even the darkest images with a strangely romantic tone. This both establishes the idealized historical setting and reflects the escapist inner world of Pearl in a fascinating way.
When viewers see Pearl imagining her dream life, she sees herself playing in grainy film footage for adoring audiences. This one of the first historical moments where large-scale film stardom is being solidified as a concept, thus continuing the thematic focus on fame that was introduced in “X” by tracing it to its origins.
As the name suggests, “Pearl” is a character piece more than anything else. This lead character-driven focus puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Goth, but she carries it wonderfully. The strange character can move between charming naivete and intense aggression, but Goth portrays these transitions with natural ease. She is able to find the melodramatic humor in the film’s biggest moments while also giving incredible emotional nuance in the more intimate moments of the film.
“Pearl” lacks the dramatic, scary moments of a classic slasher film, but is instead able to accomplish something more impressive. It develops a unique, disconcerting tone that follows the viewer throughout the film. This sinister feeling culminatesin the film’s unique, upsetting final credits sequence.
West’s fantastical, period-specific stylization and Goth’s tour-de-force performance have crystallized “Pearl” as a memorable horror villain for the ages, which, in a way, gives Pearl herself the immortality she always dreamed of.