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Co-written by West and Mia Goth, pictured, Pearl trades the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-inspired backwoods of 1979 rural Texas for the same setting, but a different time.Handout

  • Pearl
  • Directed by Ti West
  • Written by Ti West and Mia Goth
  • Starring Mia Goth, Tandi Wright and David Corenswet
  • Classification R; 102 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Sept. 16

The prequel to his critically acclaimed slasher flick X, Ti West’s new feature Pearl is similarly distinctive in its homage to period filmmaking and genre paradigms. Co-written by West and Mia Goth (who likewise stars as the protagonist in both films), Pearl trades the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-inspired backwoods of 1979 rural Texas for the same setting, but a different time: Here, the cabin where X’s pornographers were massacred is envisioned as a boarding house during the First World War.

It is 1918, the era of the Spanish Flu, and Pearl, the elderly, murderous figure of X, is pictured as a self-positioned bright-eyed ingenue, relegated however to the perceived indignities of caring for her family and the land they live on. She is the sister character to X’s Maxine; an utterly ordinary young American woman with dreams of making it to the big screen, albeit in differing ways. The through-line of Goth starring as both Maxine and Pearl in the recently announced trilogy’s first entry feels as winking as it does organic, offering a template for which “Pearl” can attempt to chart the psychology and interior life of its titular character.

Alongside West’s continued study of historically specific ways of filmmaking, this emphasis on the young Pearl’s origins is offered as the main substance of the director’s latest film. This is, above all, a character study, embedded within a smattering of rich set pieces, dance sequences, and all the other trappings of Technicolor wonderment. Goth and West’s writing here takes centre stage, with plotting and story feeling almost irrelevant to its need to compulsively allow Pearl her moment onscreen.

She tells the animals on her farm (at first, her only willing audience) that she is going to be a star; she is subsumed by the idea – much like X’s Maxine – of having “the X factor.” Where Maxine’s ambition translated to a wonderfully euphoric understanding of what star presence might look like once the cameras start rolling, here Pearl feels inert, trapped in a false reality of her own making. The film spends so much time setting up her aspirations that by the time we actually come to see Pearl properly perform, it is wholly underwhelming (albeit, captured within this understanding through West’s determinedly stylized eye).

It is this sense of delusion as well as an utter frustration of sexual desire that seem most indicative of her murderous capacities. And while it is a welcome twist to the tonal genealogies of Pearl and Maxine as doubled figures, it falls flat in living up to its potential as a window into Pearl’s desires and motives. Here, as in X, she is not only stunted emotionally but narratively as well. And while West and Goth offer up some wonderful opportunities for Goth to flex her acting chops on screen (a nearly seven-minute monologue toward the end of the film is particularly memorable, as are the film’s final credits), their preoccupation with Pearl as a character doesn’t end up adding up to much at all.

Perhaps the most glaring failure of Pearl is the way that it incorporates its camp elements. These moments are a wholly welcome puncture to the slow-burn, almost monotonous feeling of the film, but they aren’t synthesized in a way as to be fully effective. They feel like gestures or nods rather than fully formed movements with their own logic, which in and of itself speaks to the ill-advised restraint Pearl often takes instead of going full-throttle. It’s John Waters on Xanax, a kind of fever dream that is more clouded than it is devilishly deranged.

This is why a movie like Pearl, from a genre intellectual (for better and for worse) like West is so disappointing. It has the ability to reach new heights of self-reflexive pleasure but settles instead for pastiche that, while well-crafted, feels lifeless and devoid of true feeling. The film takes so long to establish its tone and artistic ambitions that it feels overwrought in a way that is staid and overly practised, rather than the handkerchief throwing, mascara running, lipstick smearing essence of pure melodrama that Pearl is surely aiming for in the first place.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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