The Venice film festival is springing some surprises on us, and one of the biggest and nicest has been the news that Mia Goth is an actual superstar: she is fiendishly good in this outrageous shocker from director Ti West, an origin-myth prequel to his previous film X, shot back-to-back on the same location. Goth starred in that one too, of course, but is now a co-writer on the followup; she takes her performance to the next level: Goth is now the Judy Garland of horror. Her work on the closing credits sequence alone deserves some kind of Golden Lion.
The film itself is terrifically accomplished and horribly gripping, with golden-age movie pastiche and dashes of Psycho and The Wizard of Oz. And anyone tempted to look down on the horror genre might want to reflect that it is horror director West who has led the way in commenting on our key issue — his film is about the pandemic and how the lockdown experience incubates dysfunction and fear.
The year is 1918, some 60 years before the action of X. Goth plays the eponymous Pearl, a young woman who is working hard on the family farm, longing for the return of her husband Howard who is away fighting in Europe — and she is also dreaming of making it as a dancer in the movies. The war is coming to an end and the Spanish flu is almost over, although Pearl still has to wear a mask when she goes into town on errands.
But Pearl is deeply unhappy, and the lockdown has increased her frustration and her disturbing behaviour. Her German-born first-generation immigrant mother (Tandi Wright) is obsessed with godly hard work and afraid to mix with the locals for fear of anti-German sentiment. She is strict with Pearl to the point of cruelty and her father (Matthew Sutherland) has suffered a stroke and has to be tended to constantly. But Pearl has a fling with the local movie theatre projectionist (David Corenswet) who shows her one of his secret stash of explicit “stag” movies — a queasy premonition of the next film — and the newsreels he shows about the war and the trenches are moreover bizarrely explicit and real. He encourages Pearl to follow her dream, to break into pictures, and to that end attend local auditions for a touring dance troupe. But Pearl, her fingers always curling around the pitchfork handle, is not going to take kindly to rejection in any form.
Like the first film, this is virtually a single location picture although there are adroitly managed scenes when Pearl goes shopping, secretly swigging the morphine she buys over the drugstore counter for her had and sneaking into the movies. Without Mia Goth’s grandiose performance, this would be nothing, and she and West contrive a genuinely brilliant scene when her sister-in-law (Emma Jenkins-Purro) thinks it would be cathartic for poor lonely Pearl to say to her what she is longing to say to her absent husband — and she gets a stream-of-consciousness aria of horror.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have enjoyed Pearl as much as I did: but it’s clever, limber, gruesome and brutally well acted. A gem.
• Pearl screened at the Venice film festival, and is released in UK and Irish cinemas on 17 March.