Pearl review: Mia Goth in a horror prequel that marks the birth of a new horror icon

Ti West’s X, released last year, was a Seventies-set slasher about pornographers working on the sly in a remote Texan farmhouse. It was a pleasingly nasty work, if limited by its questionable reliance on treating the ageing body as a source of repulsion. Pearl is its (far superior) prequel, a film written in two weeks by director Ti West and his star Mia Goth, shot in total secrecy and scrawled in bloodied guts and impotent rage. It is a wholly different beast – a tragicomic portrait of a woman so unable to process the falsity of her daydreams that it drives her to murder and mayhem.

In X, Goth played a wannabe pornstar named Maxine and, under layers of prosthetics, an elderly woman named Pearl who craved and resented Maxine’s youth. This film, set in 1918, sees the young Pearl living on the same farmstead featured in X. She is the daughter of immigrant parents, who shield themselves away out of fear of the burgeoning influenza pandemic and the risks they face due to their German heritage. Pearl’s husband, Howard (Alistair Sewell), has been sent to the Western Front. Pearl’s father (Matthew Sunderland), it’s suggested, succumbed to the flu and was left paralysed. Her cruel mother (Tandi Wright) resents her new role as caregiver, and grows especially abusive when it comes to Pearl’s reveries.

The film’s feverishly sunny, three-strip Technicolor look pays homage to The Wizard of Oz (1939) – as does Pearl’s unusual courtship of a scarecrow and Tyler Bates and Tim Williams’s winningly romantic score. But these things almost seem to taunt Pearl. They suggest that Dorothy Gale was her fullest and most enlightened self among the silly fictions of Oz, and not the daily toils of Kansas.

Pearl’s trips into town, in order to fetch morphine for her father, lead her into the arms of the local cinema’s handsome projectionist (David Corenswet). She shares with him her dreams of becoming a famous dancer. Then she confesses that, “sometimes I worry I’m not the same as other people”. Pearl is not OK. Driven deep into hiding is the darkness that’s in her. The film’s kills – fewer and less baroque than X – each become sharp and taut expulsions of feeling. West’s camera looks up in awe as Pearl looms over the frame, her axe raised.

Pearl’s torment – empathetic, frightening, and ludicrous all at the same time – is believable largely because Goth single-handedly wills it to be. Her commitment to every choked cry for attention, to every glassy-eyed departure from reality, is unimpeachable. What’s even more impressive is how delicately the actor unpicks Pearl’s innocence, to show us a woman so open to the world and vulnerable to its cruelties that she’s become corrupted beyond hope. “I feel things very deeply,” she observes. At the theatre, Pearl watches as macabre newsreel footage cuts to lines of dolled-up chorus girls – you get the sense she’s lost the ability to tell the difference between the two, between the pure and the abject.

That confusion reaches its apex in a final reel monologue, shot largely in a single take, in which all the shlockiness of Pearl’s descent into madness collapses into pure sorrow – a real rip-your-heart-out-and-slam-it-on-the-table moment for Goth. West’s film is, in short, a masterclass in finding sympathy for the devil. The credits close on Pearl as its hero grins manically, staring unblinkingly into the camera for several, unbroken minutes. It’s an impressive feat. But what we’re really looking at is the ascent, fully unmasked, of a brand new horror icon.

Dir: Ti West. Starring: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro, Alistair Sewell. 15, 102 minutes.

‘Pearl’ is in cinemas from 17 March