Pearl – Movie Review (2023)

By Naomi Roper

“We’re not in Kansas anymore” – Mia Goth excels in a lurid, blood-soaked technicolour nightmare of insanity and ambition.

Director Ti West surprised the world last year when after releasing his fun 1970s set slasher X (about a group of ill-fated filmmakers trying to make a porno film not knowing that the nice old couple they’ve rented the property from are insane killers) he revealed he had already made the prequel to that tale. In X Mia Goth played dual roles as both Maxine (the wannabe porn star who had escaped from a religious family) and the killer old lady, Pearl, via impressive prosthetics. A fine example of Hagspolitation X was a riot with committed performances, gory deaths (including death by alligator!) and a fun sleazy aesthetic. 

Pearl tells the origin story of the killer older lady from X. A vibrant, technicolour blood-soaked nightmare Pearl is the dark-hearted perverted cousin of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Pearl is a farm girl with dreams of being a huge star just like the girls she sees in the movies. With her husband away at war Pearl rots away on her farm with her invalid shell-shocked father and her stern German mother who cannot be doing with any of Pearl’s foolish dreams. When an ill-fated projectionist stokes Pearl’s interest in her Hollywood dream, events are set in motion, destroying anyone who comes into Pearl’s ambit.

Pearl is a delightfully lurid look at one woman going stark raving mad in isolation. I too would go crazy stuck on a farm in the middle of nowhere so this felt very relatable. Pearl is fuelled by an extraordinary performance from Mia Goth (which should have been up for awards if anyone gave genre movies any respect). Whether Pearl is cavorting with a scarecrow in a fantasy dance sequence that apes old Busby Berkeley routines, screeching that she’s going to be a star or nonchalantly chasing someone down with an axe in hand Mia Goth is absolutely mesmerising. She swings from child-like vulnerability to screeching harridan in the blink of an eye. You cannot drag your eyes away from her. 

Pearl is a desperately mentally ill woman, chafing against societal norms while being suffocated by the life that circumstances and family have forced upon her. We want Pearl to have her Hollywood dream even while we know it’s going to be brutally crushed. Goth’s monologue in which a vulnerable and disillusioned Pearl reveals that she’s really not like other girls is an acting masterclass and horribly discomforting to watch. And that’s before she picks up an axe…

While the look of X was all 1970s grunge, Pearl finds inspiration from the golden-aged movies of the 1930s and 40s. Pearl is sun-drenched and blood-soaked. The colours are super saturated and eye-popping to remind you of films like The Wizard of Oz.  This is most apparent in Pearl’s blood-red dress paired with cute white bows in her hair – a nod to the hairstyle of the innocent Dorothy Gale. 

While X was a straightforward slasher Pearl is a character study – an origin tale of a monster who doesn’t know she’s a monster. It’s also a light-hearted satire of the notion that movies lead “innocent” girls like Pearl astray by instilling in them dreams of a bigger, grander life that they will never be able to achieve. Its final monstrous image is both hilarious and distressing as Pearl decides to “settle” for the American dream of a happy family life.

Pearl is out in UK cinemas this weekend where it will unfortunately probably make no money at all (it’s released opposite Shazam and both of them will shortly be crushed by John Wick 4 box office-wise). The problem is that any genre fan will likely have already seen Pearl. It came out in September 2022 in the US and was somewhat mystifyingly held by Universal for release in the UK for a full 6 months. The blu ray has been available from the US for months! I swear it’s like studios don’t understand how piracy works.  If you are able to do try and support the movie in the cinema as it is entirely worth watching for Mia Goth’s inspired turn. But Universal – maybe when it comes to the release of MaXXXine – try for a sensible worldwide distribution pattern? Pearl will end up making no money in the UK as its audience has already seen it and that’s terribly unfair for such a fantastic movie.