Why’d it take nearly a year for the critically-acclaimed slasher to make it here?
This is an excerpt from The Spinoff’s pop culture newsletter Rec Room. Sign up for regular Friday dispatches here.
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a breathless late night message. Standing outside Auckland’s Capitol Theatre, where custom cocktails were being mixed and the lobby was dressed up especially for the night, he wrote: “Mia Goth is freaking amazing. No spoilers, but she does things in the last 10 minutes of this film that are just extraordinary.” To cap it off, he finished with: “She shoulda won all the awards.”
He’d just seen Pearl, the taxpayer-subsidised, Whanganui-shot feature film from Ti West, the follow-up and prequel to last year’s “Texas porno slasher” X. The story behind these two films is pretty crazy, and basically involves an entire American film crew getting stranded mid-pandemic near my home town, and deciding to shoot both movies back-to-back on shoestring budgets. (Producer Jacob Jaffke spoke to Alex Casey about how the whole saga unfolded here.)
I trust my friend’s opinion. When I receive a message like that, usually I drop everything I’m doing and head straight to the nearest cinema. But I couldn’t do that with Pearl – my friend had just seen the one and only Auckland screening. Despite almost universal praise for the film, as well as constant plaudits for the lead performance from Mia Goth, that night at the Capitol, plus similar one-night-only screenings in Wellington, Christchurch and Whanganui, were the only times anyone in Aotearoa has been able to take it in on the big screen.
We have reported on this anomaly before. Over 200 New Zealand crew members worked on Pearl, while nine of the main cast and 124 extras were also local. (Tandi Wright is in it, and she’s fantastic.) It also received $1.6 million in taxpayer money under the New Zealand Screen Production Grant. By paying your taxes, you helped Pearl get made.
Which makes it kind of bonkers that the movie didn’t get any kind of cinematic release here. While X did receive that honour – I went and saw it with the friend who texted me about Pearl – last year’s prequel never did. When it was released in cinemas overseas in September, critics went nuts for it. “A beautiful, sometimes moving, and delightfully unhinged journey,” raved a critic for We Got This Covered. Martin Scorsese loved it. “I was enthralled, then disturbed, then so unsettled that I had trouble getting to sleep. But I couldn’t stop watching,” Variety reported the veteran filmmaker as saying. He campaigned for it to receive an Academy Award.
This week, Pearl’s NZ immigration status changed. From Wednesday, it’s been available to rent through Neon for $7.99. So that’s exactly what I did. It turns out the critics were right. Pearl is even better than X. It’s a savage character portrait of a woman being pushed around, fraying at the edges, coming apart at the seams. Yes, there are bloody thrills and spills – if you’re a fan of what West did with X, you’ll know what you’re in for, and dig this even more. I’ll certainly never look at a pitchfork the same way again.
But it’s Goth’s performance that elevates Pearl into rare cinematic territory. It ends not in a bloodbath, like X, but with an absolutely riveting 10-minute monologue. Mascara streams down her cheeks. Snot drips onto her chin. The camera doesn’t move. Goth’s Pearl is sad then angry, focused then manic, upset then unhinged. She admits to the bad things she’s done, then reveals why she’s done them, careering through so many emotions in one take my head was spinning by the end of it. It’s a mesmerising scene showcasing an actor at the peak of her powers.
In Pearl, Goth reeks of freaky, old school, off-kilter Hollywood charm. Scorsese was right: it’s a performance that’s pure cinema, one for the ages. Everything critics have said about it is true. “The visual flair soars on the big screen,” declared NME. Pearl should have been available in more theatres for longer than just one night. Watching it at home is not the same. But it’s better late than never.
(For the record, Mia Goth did win a couple of awards for Pearl, but she did not receive any Academy Award nominations. Like my friend said, she totally shoulda.)