Gender-flipped Norman Bates wreaks havoc in an imaginative, gory thriller
With the Queen of England dead four years shy of 100, but not yet buried, the declaration of a seemingly indulgent 10-day mourning period for her subjects came into effect. With that 10-day mourning period came what some have called, somewhat ominously, the “Queue,” the never-ending, always expanding line of mourners who, once they reach the head of the line after hours of shuffling forward across miles of city terrain, will receive exactly one and only one minute to express their individual and collective grief and their unanswered, unanswerable prayers in front of the late queen’s mortal coil.
The vast majority of British-born mourners will be respectful, keeping their heads bowed and their prayers silent, but it’s easy to imagine the title character of writer-director Ti West (X, The Sacrament, The Innkeepers, The House of the Devil) and writer-actor Mia Goth’s (A Cure for Wellness, The Survivalist, Nymphomaniac) latest collaboration, Pearl (aka Pearl: An X-traordinary Origin Story), finding some way to turn her appearance at the front of the Queue into a major media event and/or scandal, an intentionally shocking, taboo-breaking “Look at me!” moment etched into the minds and memories of mourners and cable companies alike.
Pearl, of course, isn’t real. Far from it. She’s a figment of West and Goth’s fevered, fecund imagination, made corporeal on celluloid through their collaboration, but after almost two, increasingly disturbing hours in Pearl’s presence, it’s almost impossible to feel or think Pearl isn’t real, a complex, contradictory character who’s both an object of pity and sympathy and the embodiment of the monstrous feminine, the return of the repressed, the expression of unfettered, unrestrained desire in violent, life- and world-shattering form. Pearl will haunt the dreams and nightmares of anyone safely ensconced on the other side of the digital screen (it’s most certainly safer there for one and all).
Set decades before the events of West’s recent X, a gory grindhouse slasher set during the Carter administration in Texas (actually New Zealand), Pearl centers on Goth’s character, a young, twenty-something woman with impossibly outsized, Technicolor dreams of becoming a star of stage or screen, the object of adoration and unconditional love for thousands or tens of thousands of fans. Stuck living in a farmhouse with an authoritarian, German-born mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), and a mute, quadriplegic father (Matthew Sunderland), pining for her soldier-husband, Howard (Alistair Sewell), away somewhere in Europe, Pearl apparently has all the time in the world to dream, but none of the resources to make those dreams a reality.
Pearl has something else or rather, as she acknowledges late in the film to an increasingly terrified onlooker, something missing: She’s a sociopath, made all the more dangerous by a suffocating home life and disappearing prospects for a better or different life. Pearl can feign compassion and empathy, but only because she recognizes their utility. Even then, the mask she wears around her family or the nearby townsfolk rarely stays on forever. And when that mask slips, usually in a moment of frustration or anger, Pearl becomes a terrifying figure, fueled by imaginary slights and explosions of libidinal desire, into a series of self-justifying, violent actions.
West, however, saves the bulk of that violence for Pearl’s second half, using the first half to methodically build up the various elements of Pearl’s personality, her experiences in 1918 Texas, including an ill-dated dalliance with a pornographic-minded projectionist (David Corenswet), and the elaborate fantasy life that once frustrated or exposed to the light of day, lead inexorably, inevitably to the violence that will make transform the Pearl we meet in the prequel to the ancient, homicidal crone we meet decades later in X.
West and his frequent cinematographer, Eliot Rockett, starkly contrasts Pearl’s tortured inner life with bright, oversaturated colors typical of what used to be dismissed as “Women’s Pictures” in the 1940s and 1950s, making the outbursts of violence all the more hallucinatory and destabilizing given their context and references. West also employs Tyler Bates and Tim Williams lush orchestral score to swooning, ironic effect. Add to that on-point production design by Tom Hammock and period-perfect costumes by Malgosia Turzanska. When Pearl slips into a crimson dress in the third act, heads, limbs, and other body parts will roll and/or fly.
Not all villains or super-villains deserve origin stories of their own, but given what West, Goth, and their collaborators have produced here, it’s clear Pearl certainly did.
Pearl opens theatrically in North America on Friday, September 16th.