The self-aware, carefully creeping “X” was a 1970s-set slasher/porn homage about an adult film crew excited by their farmer’s daughter scenario and getting a very different kind of action than they planned for. Mia Goth, in a deftly articulated dual role, plays both an ambitious young porn actress and her elderly host/stalker Pearl — women of different eras gripped by a longing for attention, only one of whom has been curdled by thwarted destiny.
Now Pearl gets her desired youthful spotlight in a World War I-era origin story that West co-wrote with returning star Goth (and filmed back to back with “X”). “Pearl” reframes the eerie, decrepit farmhouse and barn from that film as a colorful, well-kept setting for a widescreen, orchestral-scored fairy tale about a wide-eyed hopeful for whom the uses of a pitchfork are still just for hay-pitching and dancing practice, and, well, OK, maybe it’s a tad eyebrow-raising that she’ll spear waterfowl with it to feed the swamp alligator.
A devotee of moving pictures, and enamored by the kind of fame they offer, Pearl is nevertheless stuck in a particular American gothic: dutiful daughter to a strict, devout Teutonic mother (Tandi Wright channeling Bergmanesque severity), nurse to her incapacitated father (Matthew Sunderland, doing a lot with his eyes) and patiently waiting wife to a soldier husband away in battle. It’s also 1918, so the still-raging influenza pandemic adds an extra layer of confinement — mom would never approve of Pearl accompanying her friendly sister-in-law (Emma Jenkins-Purro) to an upcoming audition for a touring dance showcase.
But Pearl’s confidence that there’s more out there for her — namely, that she’s the biggest undiscovered star in the world — is an unstoppable force, and it draws her toward increasingly eccentric, and deceptive, behavior. West’s dotting of allusive “Wizard of Oz” touches becomes memorably twisted when Pearl’s playful dance with a cornfield scarecrow suddenly turns hot and bothered. And on a secretive trip to the local cinema, she falls for its handsome, sweet-talking projectionist and wannabe producer (David Corenswet), who concurs — albeit not necessarily in the way Pearl envisioned — that she is an untapped talent, convincing her he can do something about it.
What we’re waiting for, of course, is for Pearl to go off on anyone in her way. West, one of the genre’s true artisans of sticky dread, certainly has fun seeding a handsomely mounted and shot (by Eliot Rockett) period melodrama with the trappings of imminent violence, from the crimson red wallpaper to a maggot-swarmed suckling pig. But “Pearl” rarely justifies itself as a franchised standalone built on the early psychosis of its bloodthirsty, unstable ingenue when the wrinkled version in “X” was tantalizingly freaky enough, and still made its points about the subjugation and exploitation of female sexuality across the generations. A gifted filmmaker could, for example, probably make a serviceably disturbed movie about the background of Carrie White’s terrifying mom, but what would it say that wasn’t said already? (Please don’t, directors.)
Which isn’t to imply that Goth, with her enjoyably demented-Hayley Mills energy, isn’t great at Pearl’s Texas-sized tornado of sweet, scary and sad. But the scaffolding of virtuosity is sometimes too apparent, never more so than when, late in the film, Pearl delivers a teary confessional monologue that West serves up in one long close-up on Goth. Whether it’s a horrormeister’s bid for dramatic heft or a grand gesture to a talented leading lady, it’s more stunty than revelatory. It is, however, jokily complemented soon after by a similarly protracted hold on Goth’s frozen, creepy smile that’s infinitely more in tune with the half-mad/half-funny vibe that is “Pearl” at its most entertaining.
Rated: R, for some strong violence, gore, strong sexual content and graphic nudity
Running times: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 16 in general release
Originally published at www.latimes.com