Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell explores the incredible year of Mia Goth in X and Pearl.
A24 has developed a track record for releasing genre films that feature absolutely wicked performances. Those range from outstanding ensemble casts (Green Room, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) to colossal individual performances from Toni Collette (Hereditary) or Florence Pugh (Midsommar).
These actors’ fierce commitment has cultivated a fanbase eager to see what wildly complex performances A24 will release next. In 2022, the performance that captured the audience’s attention the most actually stretched across two films: X and its prequel, Pearl.
The two films couldn’t be more different. One finds inspiration from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while the other pulls more from The Wizard of Oz. But they are bound together by one of the strongest horror performances of the year: Mia Goth’s Pearl.
But why exactly did Goth’s performance(s) enamor horror fans so completely in 2022?
How Mia Goth Describes Pearl
To better understand why Goth’s Pearl was so effective, let’s first look at how Goth described her character. As she told the Los Angeles Times,
“Pearl is a dreamer, and she is such an emotional person, somebody who wears her heart on her sleeve and is quite sensitive. To be able to have a character like that to sink your teeth into was so rich. She has all these dreams, all of these aspirations. She’s looking forward to the future.”
This description offers immediate insight into why audiences find Goth’s performance captivating. Even though Pearl is the antagonist across both films, the character carries hopes, dreams, and emotions that are relatable. Anyone who has ever chased after a dream that felt bigger than themselves can empathize with what Pearl is attempting to accomplish.
In a lesser actor’s hands, the starry-eyed nature of Pearl may have made her feel gratingly naive. But Goth smartly chooses to play Pearl as self-aware. Goth’s Pearl knows she has a murderous streak. However, she can’t–or won’t–stop herself. This infuses Goth’s characterization with a sense of what I can only describe as anti-innocence. We may see Pearl teetering on the edge of madness. But Goth buries those violent tendencies under a veneer of authentic purity.
Goth elaborated on Pearl’s self-awareness in an interview with Collider,
“She’s fully aware when she commits these acts that they are wrong. But she’s a very emotional person and she lets her emotions get the better of her, but she definitely has a moral compass and she knows she’s wrong and she has to live with that guilt and that’s not easy for her.”
Let’s Talk About That Monologue
Goth masterfully conveys her character’s anti-innocent emotions throughout both films, but it’s synthesized together in the most electric scene in Pearl: the extended monologue in the film’s final act.
In this scene, Goth’s Pearl is emotionally, physically, and psychologically drained. She’s already murdered her mother, father, and the cute pornographer at her local cinema. But her sorrow really comes from a failed audition for a touring dance company that would have taken her far away from her rural life.
In one unbroken take, the camera stays trained on her tear-stained face. She then pours out everything she wishes she could tell her husband, “You’re from somewhere,” she laments to his memory. “A nice, comfortable place that you could return to whenever you wanted. I’m so desperate to have that. All my life, I’ve wanted off this farm, and you were my ticket out. So I made sure to never let you see who I really was. It worked like a charm, too.”
Something I always admire in a performance is when an actor can follow their inherent impulses. Rather than thinking intellectually about given circumstances or the text, they let the emotions of the moment guide their decision-making. This is exactly what we see Goth do throughout this monologue. She follows the impulses from every tragic emotion to its absolute extremes. This was helped along by Ti West’s decision to film the monologue on the final day of shooting.
As Goth mentioned to Collider,
“All of that the intensity that came from shooting and the exhaustion that we felt really influenced the delivery of that monologue on the day…You can rehearse and you can go over your lines as much as you want, but until your there on that day you’re not really going to know how it turns out…It’s not so much thinking in that situation. You can get in trouble as an actor thinking like that on set. It’s more…it’s just a feeling. You kind of black out a little bit, you don’t really know what’s going on, you kinda just lose yourself in it and you go for it. Sometimes a director will ask, can you do that again, but you don’t really know what you did.”
As the monologue concludes, we come to feel such pitiful empathy for Pearl’s hopes and ambitions. This is because Goth plays her as a blank slate. We then can project our own unfulfilled aspirations on Pearl, connecting with the character on a more psychological level. We see the deadly lengths Pearl will go to achieve her dreams, but our hearts still bleed for her. Because, through Goth’s performance, we see parts of our own lives reflected back at us.
Will Mia Goth’s Pearl Get Awards Recognition?
Almost overnight, Mia Goth’s Pearl has become a new horror icon. Regardless of your feelings on X and Pearl, it’s difficult to deny the strength of Goth’s performance across both films. Watching an unhinged character lose the rest of their hinges has never been so complexly conveyed on screen. That Goth can keep Pearl bright and bubbly, even as dread seeps into the narrative, makes her work all the more dazzling to watch. And absolutely deserving of awards season recognition.
Too bad the Oscars still don’t really care about recognizing horror films. Even though the Academy Awards literally tweeted out a reel of Goth’s performance in Pearl, it still feels like a stretch that we’ll see that recognition honored with an actual nomination.
But when have horror movies ever needed an award to prove their worth? Even if Goth’s work flies under the radar during awards season, it won’t mute the overwhelming power of her performance. Pearl’s story may have reached its conclusion in 2022, but Goth’s acting will live rent-free in the heads of horror fans forever thirsty for fully committed genre performances.