By Jeremy Carr.
“You have to relax.” These words of advice come from Laia Costa’s Mona, near the beginning of Piercing, the second film from writer-director Nicholas Pesce. She is talking to her husband, Reed (Christopher Abbott), a man with a permanently perturbed disposition who will later echo the suggestion when speaking to a prostitute named Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), after their indulgent tryst goes awry. The recommendation suits both situations well – in the first instance, Reed had, just a few scenes earlier, been standing suspiciously over his infant daughter, with icepick in hand – but the warning could aptly apply to Piercing in general. As Pesce oscillates between extremes of visceral gore and a self-conscious, often amusing shock to narrative expectancy, this overwrought, insistently stylish, and frequently perplexing thriller rests anxiously on the razor’s edge of feigned tedium and concentrated immersion. Piercing is a film that mightily aims to evoke a variety of responses, which it methodically does to great effect. Other times, however, it tries so hard to stagger that it can stumble over its own pretensions.
Based on a 1994 novel by Ryû Murakami, whose writing also inspired Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), which shares more than a few aberrant peculiarities with Pesce’s film, Piercing’s anxiety begins and ends with Reed. Not long after he pauses deviously above his baby girl, he withdrawals to choke himself in solitude, to the point where a protuberant vein threatens to burst from the flesh of his inflamed forehead. Then, in a dry, warily mundane voiceover, he considers his plan. First and foremost, the victim, he says, must be a prostitute. He tells Mona he has gone away for a business conference, but actually travels to enact the much-deliberated murder. He is rigid and awkward, and alone in a chic hotel room, he meticulously arranges a bundle of rope, tape, chloroform, a saw, and other potentially lethal paraphernalia. He rehearses the kill, from the slaying itself and the movement of the body to the subsequent mutilation, mimicking each measure as Pesce overlays corresponding sound effects (the carving saw, the gushing blood) and underscores the simulated rehearsal to the music of “The Girl from Ipanema.” It is certainly gruesome, if only in its aural allusions, but it is also darkly comic. And like much else about Piercing, the intention is intriguingly ambiguous.
Obsessive and orderly though he may be, Reed’s aims are thwarted when Jackie enters the picture with her own unsound baggage. In terms of occupational aptitude, she is assured and yet somehow incredulous; she is open to “anything, really,” but her individual objectives (grisly ones at that) are beyond Reed’s expectations. When she retreats to the bathroom and proceeds to stab herself with scissors, repeatedly in the thigh, Reed is dumbfounded and stunned somewhere between revulsion and fascination. He’s baffled in any case, and sporadic revelations only add to the confusion (his and the viewer’s). This includes Mona’s dubious role in Reed’s excursion and Jackie’s schizophrenic swing between suicidal-homicidal vixen and happy-go-lucky Suzy Homemaker.
Accompanying the violent intimations is a discreet, potent sexuality (even though everyone in the film is attractive in an anodyne, synthetic sort of way), and as the picture steadily develops into a twisted, S&M power play, Wasikowska, clearly the promotional star personality of Piercing, is exceptional. She is fearlessly and compellingly mischievous, the embodiment of the film’s wicked uncertainty. Abbott, on the other hand, owing in part to the bemused reservation of his character and his vague behavioral context (not that Jackie has much in the way of backstory either), holds too much back, successively reducing his distinction in the relationship’s gestating conflict. While Wasikowska and Abbott are therefore poles apart in terms of intrigue, Piercing itself has a definite, curious energy, only occasionally wavering over the course of its 81-minute runtime. As things get out of hand, Reed’s panicked captivation complements the film’s humorous tension. Having seen what Jackie is capable of, and despite his own vindictive resilience, Reed fears what may come next. It’s to Pesce’s credit that anything, indeed, seems possible – Piercing is nothing if not unpredictable.
All that transpires is steeped in visual accents of lurid color, tapered lighting, and polished darkness. With cinematographer Zack Galler, Pesce produces an enticing world of sleek, superficial modernism, illuminating Piercing’s artificial urban backdrop (miniatures designed to look like a generic, nocturnal metropolis) and incorporating elements of expressive cinematic citation (a grindhouse “Feature Presentation” card to start the film and the sampling of scores from assorted Giallo classics). Only a surreal, drug-induced flashback/fantasy sequence appears out of place with its poorly integrated CGI creations. Most conspicuous, though, are the film’s discombobulating tonal shifts, hilariously abrupt transitions that take the characters from a casual chat to a bloody romp on the ground, from near-fatal torture to a brief dinner table reprieve where they slurp their soup like nondescript newlyweds. Premiering at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, a follow-up to Pesce’s striking black-and-white debut, The Eyes of My Mother, Piercing is icy, dispassionate, and acerbic, bristling with a pervasive psychosexual kinkiness. Even when it gets too smart for its own good – a little too cool and a little too deliberate – there is no denying the enthusiasm Pesce displays in the process.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.