A husband and father’s scheme to kill a prostitute goes wrong when she stabs herself first in Nicolas Pesce’s devilish Piercing. Pesce’s bloody adaptation of Ryū Murakami’s short Japanese novel of the same name is deeply sardonic in nature, a clever two-person play on that age-old “desperate man kills sex worker” trope that flips the script in deliciously dark manner. Picture American Psycho for millennials, with less business card panic attacks and more feminist subversion, and you’ll be somewhere in the right ballpark.
The Eyes of My Mother director brings black humor to Murakami’s 1994 creation, spring-loading his picture with sick playfulness that adds uncomfortable “don’t laugh” comedy to this psychosexual cat and mouse game. His devious approach uses sassy storytelling methods (talking babies urging murder, imaginary phone calls, hallucinatory backflips into past trauma) and a casually detached tone to illuminate reality breaking inside his characters, leaving the viewer to ever question what is and is not real.
One thing that is crystal clear is that the two characters who occupy the screen are misanthropes both, but each earn an odd twinge of our sympathies. Christopher Abbott is Reed, a man introduced to us choking out his own baby in the darkness of his home. He tells his wife that he’ll be away on business for a night when in reality he will be using this time to exorcize demons, a last-ditch attempt to get his domestic impulses (a la baby choking) under control.
Mia Wasikowska’s Jackie doesn’t fare much better – she’s self-harming and potentially as unhinged as her attacker – and trying to figure her out – her strange motives, her own dark impulses – is one of the greater joys of the film because what’s driving her is never exactly clear. This works to Piercing’s advantage in some scenes and against it in others, leaving us questioning exactly what is going on and why in moments when the answers should be more clear. Regardless, both Wasikowska and Abbott are excellent throughout and loan their respective characters empathy that would usually be missing in a piece like this.
As a follow-up exercise to The Eyes of My Mother, Piercing proves that Pesce is no one-trick pony and indeed has range to spare. Even working within the same genre, his voice couldn’t be much more different. While both products are disturbing for their own reasons, there’s a psychosexual tension that ranks with the finest depictions of such on display in Piercing.
From the bold yellow lettering to the funky sex jams, Piercing tempers the sinister surge of a man plotting to kill a prostitute with feverish grindhouse style. From the unforgettable, up-tempo score to Zack Galler’s evocative, inner-city cinematography, Piercing is overflowing with style and visual punctuation. In adapting the story, Pesce imports the action to America, dropping us into some unnamed towering city that feels cold and empty and morally destitute; apocalyptic almost.
The small scope of the film (Jackie and Reed are essentially the only characters) and often barren city vistas provide a sense of isolation that mirror the empty inner lives of its characters and their desperation to be seen, understood; a hope that only exists in projected fantasy. As the two psychopaths circle each other, they find a twinkle of recognition and empathy, only to see it violently stamped out and flushed away. Hilariously bleak and bleakly hilarious, Piercing is the anti-love story of the year.
CONCLUSION: Surreal ‘Piercing’ is a diabolically amusing exercise in misunderstood psychopaths trying to fill the proverbial void in their lives through violent means. Snappy, satirical, kinky, and with a killer ending to boot, the horror-thriller from Nicolas Pesce is a fine start to the 2019 indie horror season.
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