‘Pearl’ Review: A Farmer’s Daughter Moves Up the Food Chain

If you have seen “X,” Ti West’s ingenious and heartfelt pastiche of ’70s horror and hard-core pornography, you know that Mia Goth plays two roles. (If you haven’t seen it, there are spoilers ahead.) She is Maxine, an aspiring movie star and the designated survivor of a rural killing spree. Disguised by prosthetic makeup, she is also a horny and homicidal farmer’s wife named Pearl, and does a lot of killing.

In “Pearl,” which Goth wrote with West, she repeats that role, playing Pearl as a horny and homicidal farmer’s daughter. That’s not the setup for a dirty joke, and this prequel, set in 1918, is less of a dirty movie than “X” aspired to be. There is some sex and plenty of gore, but mostly an atmosphere of feverish, lurid melodrama leavened with winks of knowing humor and held together by Goth’s utterly earnest and wondrously bizarre performance.

More than 50 years before the events in “X,” Pearl lives on the same Texas farm, with its creaky yellow house, its cavernous barn, and a hungry alligator in the pond. Her life is an endless cycle of toil and frustration. Her husband, Howard, is away at war, leaving her alone with her parents: a pious, dictatorial German mother (Tandi Wright) and a father (Matthew Sunderland) who has been incapacitated by the flu. Money is scarce, and Pearl escapes by sneaking off to the movies while she’s running errands in town.

She dreams of running off to pursue a career in pictures, practicing song-and-dance routines in anticipation of a big break. She also practices what we know from “X” will be one of her later vocations. When a goose wanders into the barn and looks at her funny, she impales it on a pitchfork and feeds it to the alligator. The arc of “Pearl” charts her progress up the food chain, from poultry to human prey.

The bloodshed is at least as grisly as the slaughter in “X,” but “Pearl” occupies a different corner of the slasher-movie universe. It isn’t especially suspenseful — the identity of the killer is never in doubt, and her victims don’t elicit much sympathy — but it has a strange, hallucinatory intensity. The emotions and the colors are gaudy and overwrought, the music (by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams) is frenzied and portentous, but the film is too sincere, too tender toward its peculiar heroine, to count as camp.

It’s also a bit thin and undercooked, but Goth’s performance transcends its limits. She is by turns childlike, seductive and terrifying. Pearl falls into an affair with the local movie-house projectionist (David Corenswet), who introduces her to French pornography and dazzles her with the promise of a Bohemian life free of small-town constraints. She seethes and simpers around her parents, and tries to be friends with her wholesome blonde sister-in-law (Emma Jenkins-Purro). Through it all, Pearl grapples with stifling social and domestic expectations and with her irrepressible hunger for freedom, fame and erotic release.

Goth might remind you at times of Judy Garland in youth, of Shelley Duvall in the ’70s, or of a demonically possessed Raggedy Ann doll, but she has her own fearless and forthright intensity. West wants you to see that Pearl, a monster in the making, is also a heroine for the ages. Goth will make you believe it. Or else.

Rated R. Stay out of the barn, and the basement. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. In theaters.

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