Set in 1918, the outside world is suffering through the Spanish Flu pandemic and World War I, but on the remote farm that Pearl (Goth) calls home, nothing ever happens. Her first-generation German immigrant mother (Tandi Wright) is a strict “be happy with what you have” type who truly believes life never turns out the way you hope it will. When she isn’t caring for her comatose father (Matthew Sunderland), Pearl dreams of being a dancer in the movies. “I’m special,” she says. “One day the world is gonna know my name.”
Her husband Howard was supposed to take her away from the dreary farm life, but he went to war instead, leaving her behind. When she meets a “bohemian” film projectionist at the local Bijou, he encourages her to live out her dreams, but she feels bound to her parents. “If only they would just die,” she says.
When an audition comes up at the local church for a part in a dance revue, she sees a way out of her humdrum life, but what about her parents? “I will never let you leave the farm,” says her mother.
“Pearl” is a prequel of sorts to “X,” director Ti West’s previous film. That film stars Goth as Maxine, a 1970s adult entertainer who believes she is destined for a bigger and better life outside the strip club run by her boyfriend. When they concoct an idea to shoot a porno film, they choose a remote farm, one that STRONGLY resembles the farm in “Pearl.”
In both films, ambition and dreams blur to turn deadly, but you don’t need to have seen “X” to understand “Pearl.” Above all else, “Pearl” is a character study of a trouble young woman, anchored by a fearless performance from Goth. In work reminiscent of Anthony Perkins in “Psycho” by way of director Douglas Sirk. Goth is both over-the-top and understated, switching from demur, to wild-eyed to sympathetic with her malleable, expressive face. The last shot, a grin that will burn its memory in your brain, is not only a testament to Goth’s orthodontist, but also gives Conrad “the man who laughs” Veidt a toothy run for his money.
It is a remarkable performance—including a lengthy monologue that showcases all the various sides of Pearl’s personality—at the heart of this truly oddball and off-kilter examination of the push-and-pull between repression and the need for attention. Whereas “X” was a tribute to the slasher movies of the 1970s, this film has some brutal moments, but doesn’t have the scares. There are unpleasant moments, but this is an homage to the heightened melodramas of the 1950s and 60s. But with more axes, scarecrow sex and hungry alligators than Sirk could ever have imagined.
“Pearl” is being billed as a slasher, but it’s really a cinematic collage of styles with Goth as the glue that binds them together.