Following his debut feature, The Eyes of My Mother, Nicolas Pesce returns with another Sundance installment, this time in the form of Piercing, an adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s novel of the same name, who rose to fame with Audition (adapted into the now well-referenced Japanese horror film). Unlike Eyes, Piercing is darkly comedic, but in the same vein as Pesce’s debut, unapologetically vicious, largely inaccessible, and stylish to a fault.
Whether Piercing snags distribution and lands a 2018 release is to be determined. Regardless, we’re not going to get a more deliciously twisted opening and premise than we do here. Contemplate stabbing your newborn with an ice pick; decide your time is much better spent on hiring a sex worker and killing her; prepare to kill said sex worker while providing a play-by-play of the murder, complete with kitschy sound effects; sex worker arrives, and agrees to partake in S&M foreplay; find out that said sex worker is way too into kink, and in an instant, your plan goes to hell.
From ice picks, close-up piercings of nipples, and creative uses for can openers, Piercing is every fetish gone wrong, and often it has never felt so right under Pesce’s command. If you’ve seen Eyes, it’s clear Pesce works well with taboo, and strives to push our tolerance levels for graphic content to the extreme, while peppering such transgressions with a slick style that compliments the bleakness of his vision. Whether his films amount to any greater meaning, though, is yet to be seen. And two films in, we have to consider whether it’s ok that Pesce’s agenda is unclear, or if a lack of commentary within his work is a fatal flaw, especially in the horror genre.
Piercing puts style first, with its reverence for the works of Lynch and Argento at the forefront. Think if directors had a love child who ended up directing Phantom Thread instead of Paul Thomas Anderson. To detail the style further is to ruin the fun of the film, and sadly, it’s what Pesce cared about most in Piercing. Christopher Abbott plays our killer, Reed, and Mia Wasikowska his intended victim, Jackie. Abbott is a delight, instilling in Reed a malevolent empathy we can’t help but swoon over, with Wasikowska right at his heels; her Jackie sadistically joyous, stealing most scenes.
When Piercing gets into the meat of its plot, it sadly stumbles between scenes, and even at an 80 minute running time, slogs where it should peak. A halfhearted twist is nudged into the plot at the mid-point, one that truly is a game changer for understanding Reed, and a device that should have been integrated more robustly. Instead, Pesce relies on a simple backstory to bring Reed’s motivation to the forefront. It's an awkward decision when considering the aforementioned twist and Abbott as an actor – a true expressionist, who brings out his character through bodily movements and facial quirks. Putting Reed's inner pain literally on display feels as if Pesce didn’t trust the audience to come to their own conclusions about our killer. To counterbalance him, though, the script perfectly strips down Jackie’s motivations, leaving us with a splintering performance caught between pleasure and agony that will keep audiences guessing at every turn. Undoubtedly, Jackie is the quintessential manic pixie dream girl for Reed, but Wasikowska plays her with a slight twinkle in her eye that reminds us just how perverse Piercing is meant to be, and how far from any dream partner Jackie or Reed would make.
Piercing succeeds as a cat and mouse game, often blurring the lines of aggressor and receptor. You can see that Pesce is scrambling to paint a portrait of his murderer as a tortured soul, a bold decision that was an integral element missing from The Eyes of My Mother. Arguably, Piercing is less sharp due to is its overabundance of ideas and lack of cohesion between them. As a film that basks in absurdity, there’s value in not taking serious topics seriously, but it’s unclear whether Piercing wants to be playful, or merely mock and wag its finger in judgment, murder aside. As a filmmaker concerned with visuals, Pesce is on the right path, but has still to find the pathos in his characters.