Pearl Is a Heartland Horror Fit for Our Times

Martin Scorsese loves Ti West’s “demented Disney film,” Pearl — and you will too.

Mia Goth stars as the title character in Ti West’s Pearl. (A24)

You might’ve heard about Pearl, a startling fever dream of a horror film that’s currently playing in theaters and getting a lot of well-deserved attention. It’s the second film in director Ti West’s Texas Chainsaw Massacreinspired trilogy, which started with X (2022) and will be followed by the upcoming MaXXXine, featuring murder and mayhem in the rural American heartland. Martin Scorsese is really pounding the drum for it:

Ti West’s movies have a kind of energy that is so rare these days, powered by a pure, undiluted love for cinema. You feel it in every frame. A prequel to ‘X’ made in a diametrically opposite cinematic register (think 50s Scope color melodramas), ‘Pearl’ makes for a wild, mesmerizing, deeply — and I mean deeply — disturbing 102 minutes. West and his muse and creative partner Mia Goth really know how to toy with their audience. . . . I was enthralled, then disturbed, then so unsettled that I had trouble getting to sleep.

Pearl is about its title character (Mia Goth), a young woman in 1918 stuck in a terrible limbo on her parents’ farm while her husband is off fighting in World War I. Her mother (Tandi Wright) is a harsh taskmaster and a punitively religious woman, a German immigrant highly conscious of the dangers of anti-German prejudice during the war and half-expecting to be shunned by the community. Her father (Matthew Sunderland), physically immobilized in his wheelchair and incapable of speech, is grudgingly tended to by his wife and daughter. The Spanish flu epidemic has further isolated them in a festering state of resentment.

The shadowy interior of the farmhouse would be a seething mass of explosive, unexpressed emotions even without Pearl’s delusional fantasies about being destined to become a star in the burgeoning film industry. When Pearl bicycles into town to do errands for her mother, she habitually stops at the movie house and there becomes enthralled with the film Palace Follies. She also becomes involved with the handsome projectionist (David Corenswet), who shows her an illicit French stag film and thrills her with tales of escape to the bohemian life in the cities of Europe.

Pearl is soon dangerously obsessed with the idea of auditioning to be a member of a dance troupe that would resemble the chorus line she saw in Palace Follies. The troupe would tour several states and provide Pearl an escape from the farm at last. She regards this as a stepping stone to inevitable Hollywood stardom. The problem is her flinty mother stands in her way. Plus she’d feel bad if she left her father behind. She can’t help wondering aloud if it wouldn’t be better if they’d both just die.

What works so well about this material is the bizarrely wholesome look of the film, especially early on, with brown-eyed, snub-nosed Mia Goth costumed in cute overalls and pigtails with bows like child actor Judy Garland, out doing her chores on an idyllic farm with a Jersey cow named Charlie for a friend. Right up until the moment when a goose waddles into the barn and Pearl looks down on it coldly and spears it with a pitchfork, you’d almost think you were in an updated Disney live-action movie celebrating the heartland, like Pollyanna (1960).

The bold faux-Technicolor look creates wonderfully surreal effects. The warm yellow of the cornfields against a blue sky makes even creepier the look of the too-lifelike scarecrow guarding the crops. He’s got an uncanny death mask of a face, which seems just about to move and start talking, like a terrifying version of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

Late in the film, Pearl dons one of her mother’s good dresses — which she’s forbidden to wear — for an audition. It’s high necked and deep crimson and nearly floor length, a generation out of date. Just by itself, the dress is disturbing, one Lizzie Borden might’ve worn to do axe murders. West uses it to compose an admirable American Gothic shot of Pearl in blood red sitting outside against the whitewashed school wall, next to her blonde sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) dressed in pale blue, waiting to be called in to audition. The straggling little row of wooden chairs against the white wall, the nervous, hopeful, rustic young women in the chairs, and Pearl sitting upright and still, like the Red Death personified, is as beautifully unsettling a shot as I’ve seen in a long time.

Goth’s eccentric likability is a bit like young 1970s Shelley Duvall’s, and her all-out commitment to her role makes it impossible not to share with Pearl a sense of the world as a kind of sunny hell, full of weirdly cheerful affirmations and religious gratitude in the midst of annihilating disaster. Goth, who cowrote the script with director West, does a six-minute monologue near the end of the film, the buildup to a hair-raising finale involving Pearl and blonde “all-American” Mitsy.

The final shot of the film is Pearl, in close-up, bright-eyed and smiling for a few minutes straight, the smile held so long it becomes disturbing. Then painful. Then horrifying. The unblinking eyes begin to fill with tears that run down the face with its mad teeth-baring grimace, until an old-time iris-in shot from the silent era brings the merciful darkness inward and closes it off.

West has called Pearl a “demented Disney film,” and it’s heartening to see such a clear-eyed aesthetic that seems so right for our times.