2018

Sundance Film Festival Review: Nicolas Pesce’s ‘Piercing’

The tropes of serial killer and kink stories get a new spin in Piercing, a mischievous troll of a film that knows what you expect and continually toys with those expectations. Director Nicholas Pesce’s script is based on a novel by Japanese author Ryū Murakami, best known in the West for Audition, the source material for the infamous Takashi Miike film. Like that story, Piercing uses the framework of horror and extreme violence to interrogate the ideas underlying such plots, as well as the appeal they hold for the typical horror audience. In Audition, the subject was gender roles. Here, it’s violence as an expression of psychological trauma, as well as the push-pull of relationships.

The tormented killer — whom viewers are invited to observe with morbid fascination, empathize with, sympathize with or even like — is a well-worn character type, from Dexter to M to American Psycho and much more. Piercing initially seems to set up such a character: family man Reed (Christopher Abbott), who feels a powerful, unwanted compulsion to stab his infant with an ice pick. He figures the best way to purge this demon is to murder someone and “get it out of his system.” So, in a meticulous manner, he plans to hire and kill a sex worker while on a business trip. The 81-minute film wastes no time on anything, and sets all this up within the first five minutes. From there, it dangles before the audience the question of what kind of movie they’re about to see. Is it going to turn into torture porn? A cat-and-mouse chase? A comedy of errors as Reed’s plans go awry? The answer is both all and none of the above.

Reed’s target ends up being Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), a bondage specialist who proves to be not what he’s expecting, and throws off his meticulously notated murder schedule from the get-go. They’re soon engaged in a warped back-and-forth struggle for dominance which mirrors the uncertainty-seeded vagaries of a romantic relationship in its early stages. The movie is a two-hander with minimal appearances by other actors, and both leads are more than up to the unusual material. Abbott is a jittery wreck, playing an aspiring psycho with the energy of a shy dude on his first date. Wasikowska plays Jackie like she’s already hit rock bottom and has broken through to see how much lower she can sink, finding in Reed’s desire to stay with her an intriguing antidote to her lonely malaise. That he wants to stay in order to kill her (or maybe he honestly feels an attraction to a kindred spirit?) only adds further flavor to their dance.

Piercing plays out Reed and Jackie’s tryst as a sadomasochistic Punch and Judy routine, with the flare-ups of violence equally funny and horrifying. Pesce’s most impressive move is presenting this in a way that still respects the pain of the characters and doesn’t make light of abuse or assault. It’s likely to satisfy gore hounds without stoking anyone’s misogyny, and even does so in inventive ways. (This film contains what I believe to be the first cinematic example of grievous bodily harm inflicted with a can opener.) That the exterior shots are done with miniatures adds to the unreal effect of peeking into a back-alley peep show.

As flashbacks reveal the roots of Reed’s pathology, Piercing explores how people worsen their pain by inflicting it on others in the hopes of working through it, and how that is expressed interpersonally. That viewers don’t see Jackie’s origins (leaving one to chauvinistically assume that this is simply what happens to a sex worker) skews the balance somewhat, though she’s still established as a character rather than a cipher. Importantly, Jackie is not ultimately a vessel through which Reed is to find damnation or redemption. Like in Audition, the failure on the part of the male lead (and perhaps the viewer) to conceive of a woman as a human with her own motivations and needs is the man’s undoing. Murakami’s novel apparently delves more into the characters’ psychology and mines the situation for pathos instead of the wry comedy this adaptation makes of it. But even if it is shallower than its basis, the movie remains good fun.

Dan Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic and freelance editor. Follow him on Twitter @DanSchindel.

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