Mia Goth, we salute you. Especially this month, with a dual helping of 'Infinity Pool' and 'Pearl'
Mia Goth, we salute you.
Especially this month.
Two films confirm the undisputed claim the 29-year old British performer has on this generation’s Scream Queen crown. Both Infinity Pool and Pearl cement the barnstorming run she’s been having recently, and offer Goth twice the celluloid space to shine.
The first is Brandon Cronenberg's follow-up to his excellent 2020 bodyhorror thriller Possessor, and is equal parts tippy sci-fi thriller and half-baked satire du jour.
Infinity Pool follows a couple, James and Em (Alexander Skarsgård, Cleopatra Coleman) on vacation at a luxury resort in a fictional nation called Li Tolqa. He is a writer, searching for inspiration for his difficult second novel, and she’s the money behind their lavish trips. James meets Gabi (Goth), and this encounter leads to a fatal accident which exposes them to a strange local practice linked to a dark subculture of hedonistic tourism. This custom is a zero-tolerance policy for crime which gives perpetrators two options: either be executed for your crime or, if you’re rich enough, create a double of yourself whose death you can watch as punishment.
There’s no escaping that Infinity Pool does anchor itself in the current “Actually, when you think about it, rich people are bloody awful, aren’t they?” thematic wave that seems to be flooding big and small screens at the moment – from the HBO double tap of Succession and White Lotus, to the ‘eat the rich’ wish fulfilment of class warfare films like Triangle of Sadness, Glass Onion and The Menu. However, Brandon Cronenberg gives this common strand a more visceral and stomach-churning edge, avoiding the rich-people-are-bad clichés (for the most part) by satisfying those not only looking to observe the strange creatures who throw money at any accountability problem - even one as harrowing as a death sentence - but more importantly, those who fancy a twisted good time.
Throughout, Mia Goth is superb as the femme fatale linchpin who knows more than she initially lets on. Whether she’s showing off her ditzy acting over dinner, outrageously flirting with James or dementedly threatening his life, there isn’t a second of this performance that isn’t compulsively watchable.
Like the sadistic Gabi, Cronenberg is clearly having a blast here, enjoying sudden tonal shifts, peppering in some fiendish red-herrings, and embracing the disturbing visuals that show he’s a chip off the ol’ parental block. However, while the filmmaker laudably avoids the obvious doppelganger narrative strands you might expect by calling them out from the get-go, some of the plot evolves in ways that are less convincing.
The Twilight Zone premise does evoke aspects of Brian Yuzna’s body horror film Society at times, especially in the graphic sexual content and the unsettlingly psychedelic sex scenes; but style aside, the further the film drifts away from meditations on the dually liberating / confining psychological and financial values assigned to the notion of the self and the fear of death, the shallower the film gets.
The mindless hedonism at work in the White Lotus-from-hell direction does end up feeling a tad overwrought and, yes, mindless. And it’s hard to shake the feeling that the end result would have been greatly elevated had the film ended a few frames prior to its current curtain drop. Still, while imperfect, we get a disturbingly playful and sexy ride about personal metamorphosis, as well as a God-tier performance from Goth, whose manic energy in the third act more than compensates for the marks Infinity Pool doesn’t quite manage to hit.
Continuing her run of complex horror movie protagonists is Mia Goth's second starring vehicle this month: Pearl, the killer prequel to last year’s period slasher X.
Fear not for those playing catch-up: you don’t need to have seen X to enjoy Pearl – even if it helps.
(Warning: Spoilers for X coming up.)
X introduced Pearl as an old lady (played by Goth under heavy, Tilda Swinton in Suspiria -style prosthetics) in 1979, who played host to an adult-film crew shooting a porno on her remote farmhouse property. Triggered by her guests’ youthful verve – especially wannabe pornstar Maxine’s (also played by Mia Goth), the elderly lunatic ruthlessly sets off a gory killing spree.
There, you’re up to speed.
Pearl winds back the clocks 60 years. Set in Texas during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, Ty West’s centerpiece of his X trilogy – which will be rounded off next year with MaXXXine – sees the young Pearl dreaming of movie stardom. However, the bright-eyed woman (played once again by Mia Goth, sans caking) is stuck in a rural prison. While her husband Howard is away fighting in Europe, she’s prospectless and forced to stay on the family farm with her puritanical German immigrant mother (Tandi Wright) and her wheelchair-bound father (Matthew Sunderland).
Frustrated by lockdown, which has only heightened her disturbing urges (RIP, sweet goose – you were orgasmically slaughtered too soon), Pearl finds some comfort in the arms of a local movie theatre projectionist (David Corenswet), who shows her one of his secret stash of explicit “stag” movies. He encourages Pearl to follow her dream of making it as a dancer in the movies. Suddenly, Pearl sees a way out. And nothing is going to stand in her way of her silver screen ambitions.
Let’s not mince words: As enjoyable as X was as a straight-laced ode to grainy 70s exploitation horror movies, Pearl is the far superior film. The Godfather Part II of the retro slasher world, if you will. And impressively, it actually makes the first chapter better.
Written by West and Goth during a two-week quarantine in New Zealand before the filming of X in 2020, this second instalment moves away from the DIY aesthetic of its predecessor and replicates the saturated Technicolor photography of The Wizard of Oz. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett imbues every frame with vivid colours that provoke an eerie dreamlike quality which perfectly mirrors the tragicomic plight of the central protagonist’s inability to give her heightened daydreams a reality check. Hence, all the mayhem and murder.
Stylistically, Pearl is pure pastiche, and it works wonders without feeling like cheap parody. The style always has something to say and feeds the themes of frustrated desires as a catalyst for unlocking further aspirations – even if they are murderous. In this case, Pearl (like X before it, to a point) invites reflection on desiring stardom, and whether empowerment must be exploitative.
Goth is instrumental in driving these themes home, and Pearl is the strongest horror showcase she’s had so far. Her tour de force performance eclipses the main pull of the first film – the simultaneous dual roles – and she manages to merge comedy and tragedy in a way that is truly unnerving. Pearl comes off as innocent enough for the viewer to almost root for her. Despite those terrifying rictus smiles she pulls.
Granted, mileage will vary depending on how you feel about extreme, full-throttle performances. And make no mistake: like in Infinity Pool, Mia Goth delivers the unhinged goods. It may be too much for some, but chances are that the majority will recognize the riotous turn as Pearl as the performance that should have been celebrated during awards season. Quite how Goth missed out on nominations for his is baffling, especially when you consider that unforgettable climactic monologue where the camera never wavers from Pearl’s face as she delivers an uncut, 6-minute soliloquy that prepares you for a perfect final shot.
Unlike Infinity Pool, Pearl gets the ending just right.
“I’m gonna be a star. One day everyone’s gonna know my name…”
A repeated line in both X and Pearl that takes on metatextual heft when celebrating Mia Goth. Both her riotous roles in Infinity Pool and Pearl mean that at this point, it’s not only the Scream Queen crown Goth is wearing – she’s officially a horror icon.
And we’ve still got MaXXXine to look forward to...
Infinity Pool and Pearl are both currently in cinemas.