The Two Unlikely Stars That Inspired Mia Goth's Pearl Performance

It's no hyperbole to call Mia Goth's performance in Ti West's new film "Pearl" one of the best of the year. As the title character, Goth is equal parts gentle hayseed, desperate dreamer, sexually repressed young person, and deeply cracked psychopath. It's a broad, yet totally believable performance. The film climaxes with an extended, uncut monologue that Goth directs toward an absent husband, and her heart spills onto the floor over how disappointing her life has become. It's scary and it's heartbreaking.

"Pearl" is the second part of a three-film cycle that began with "X" back in February. "X" was set in 1978, and featured Goth in a dual role of the aspiring adult actress Maxine and the very elderly Pearl who was moved by lust to murder. "Pearl" flashes back to 1918, when the title character was a young woman on the very same farm, and how she first began killing. The third and final film in the series, "MaXXXine" set in 1985, is currently in development.

Goth, in addition to starring in these films, also co-wrote and serves as executive producer on "Pearl." In a recent interview with W magazine, Goth reveals what a novel experience this was for her. In the past, she said, she would only sometimes be asked for input on a script. Co-writing a screenplay afforded Goth a lot more freedom in exploring the character, and how her environment led to extreme acts of desperation.

The Technicolor marvel

While "Pearl" is set in 1918, the saturated color photography, makeup, and stagey acting are more evocative of a Douglas Sirk film from the 1950s. It's also no coincidence that Pearl, in one notable scene, dresses in powder blue gingham very evocative of Dorothy Gale from "The Wizard of Oz." In that scene, Pearl, feeling a rush of lust, takes out her frustrations on a nearby scarecrow — a sexual riff on a '30s classic. In a recent interview with Opentapes, Ti West also revealed that "Pearl" was meant to take a lot of cues from the film version of "Mary Poppins."

For her part, Goth was influenced less by the works of Douglas Sirk, Victor Fleming, or Robert Stevenson, and more by a pair of rather surprising precursors. In the W interview, Goth said she looked to Bette Davis in the 1962 Robert Aldrich film "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" as well as Björk in Lars Von Trier's 2000 film "Dancer in the Dark."

One might be able to see the influence of "Baby Jane" more clearly. "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" is about a former child star (Davis), now in her 60s, still longing for the glory days of when she achieved fame on stage as a 9-year-old moppet. She resents her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), whom Jane must care for as she, years ago, was injured in a car crash and now requires constant supervision.

The "Baby Jane" comparison is certainly apt, especially when compared to "X," another film about a woman remembering the glory days of her youth. Additionally, "X" contains a great deal of resentment for those who haven't yet been destroyed by despair and old age.

Dancer in the Dark

Less clear is the influence from "Dancer in the Dark." In that film, Björk plays a woman named Selma working in a steel mill who finds that she is slowly going blind. Knowing her son will soon face the same fate, she has saved up a store of cash in the hopes of getting him an eye operation. When a co-worker steals Selma's money, she accidentally kills him. Selma is arrested and put on trial. Rather than tell the truth in court — that she was being robbed — she sticks to a promise she made to her victim, misguidedly exonerating him. The second half of "Dancer in the Dark" is a litany of pain and suffering. Many critics praised the film. Björk hated the experience and eventually went on record saying Von Trier sexually harassed her. Von Trier denied the allegations.

Pearl was not so much the victim of a targeted thief, but a victim of her circumstances. As her stern mother points out, Pearl is off balance and needs to be hidden from the world out of fear that she'll commit murders. Pearl is lashing out against a world that isn't providing her with the freedom she longs for. She cannot leave the farm, as there are few opportunities for the upward mobility of young women in 1918. Selma, in contrast, serves as a criticism of Christian goodness. Refusal to call out a man who robbed you isn't being a victim of circumstance. It is merely misplaced loyalty. 

Wherever Goth drew her influences from, her performance is excellent and should be talked about come awards season. Few awards bodies tend to recognize films like "Pearl" by mere dint of its genre and its violence, so fans of Goth can prepare now for the inevitable snubs.