Courtship is a curious affair, but it’s never more peculiar than when shared between two psychopaths. Such is the set up for writer-director Nicolas Pesce’s unexpected The Eyes of My Mother followup, Piercing, which pits two misaligned misanthropes against each other in a seduction to the death.
Christopher Abbott stars as Reed, a businessman with a loving family who just wants to kill somebody. He hovers above his baby’s crib, ice pick in hand, pondering the inconceivable when his doting wife (Laia Costa) unknowingly interjects and soothes him, at least for a second, until the baby pipes up again and Reed decides once and for all just what he must do. He’s just got to kill somebody.
With murder on the mind, Reed sets out on a “business” trip, hires a hooker, and prepares to get down to the nitty gritty (read: murder). There’s just one problem: Jackie (Mia Wasakowska), his would-be victim, stumbles in with a set of her own next-level perversions, and once she arrives, Piercing unfolds like a bloody spy-vs-spy of sadism and masochism between two impossible soul mates who never quite know what the other has in store.
Piercing is bold and stylish from the word go (boasting an impressive opening sequences of miniatures that immediately sets the film somewhere out of time and place), but the things really springs to life once Jackie arrives. She’s bold and fragile, unpredictable and determined — a perfect set of contradictions wrapped up in a grinning mystery box. And she’s an ideal foil to Reed, who is overly prepared and rehearsed, but surprisingly uncertain and soft-spoken; and easily disarmed by her shocking, indecipherable passions. Wasachowska is a delight in the role, which is easily one of the best in her unpredictable career.
Pesce’s debut feature, The Eyes of My Mother, was a depraved homage to Hitchcock and the era of character-driven thrillers. Shot in loving chiaroscuro black-and-white, the film unfolded a stylish tribute to the thrills of the 40s and 50s, while bringing a compelling original narrative to the table. By the same token, Piercing is a love letter to Giallo (sans murder mystery) and the Euro-horror of the 70s. It may be tackling a different era in film, but Piercing is just as stylized and reverently crafted as Eyes of My Mother, subbing the inky shadows of black-and-white for the textures and rich tones of 70s cinema. As an added benefit, the film also reveals Pesce’s previously untold passion for clothes and costuming (his father was a fashion designer, you see,) and Piercing indulges in some delicious moments of lavish costuming, from menswear to lingerie.
Pesce makes even more overt homage to his inspirations in Piercing, including a few downright ballsy needle drops. When you use the themes for Deep Red and Tenebre, you better bring a film that’s worthy. Fortunately Pesce does. Adapting from the novel of the same name by Ryū Murakami (who also wrote Audition, if you’re wondering what flavor of fucked up you’re in for), Pesce jazzes up the material with split screens, heightened production design, and playful sound effects. We hear every splash of blood and breaking bone while Reed practices his would-be murder, and its details like these that give the film a warm sense of humor in the middle of the searing moments of violence and deviance. Piercing doesn’t quite wink at the audience, but it has a self-aware quality that welcomes likeminded viewers with arms wide open.
Running a lean 81 minutes, the film’s spell is shattered occasionally when it falls to some faults — there’s an indulgent hallucinatory flashback and an abrupt ending that may chafe some viewers — but Piercing is a propulsive, intricately crafted thriller that plays like the twisted lovechild of American Psycho and Phantom Thread. Slick and sick, sometimes sexy, and surprisingly sweet, the film is carefully crafted to never let up on the tension while always pulling the viewer deeper into the intimacy unfolding between these two violently kinky loners. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a potent brew for those who like its flavor.
Piercing is now in theaters, On Demand and on Digital HD.