February is becoming a strange month. Like January, February tends to be a dumping ground for films not likely to find an audience or for films leaning into Hallmark’s notion of love. While some aspects of this remain true (markets can only support so many films at once), the types of films releasing throughout the year seem less beholden to the old rules. Pushing against the old notions of market release and love is writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s second feature film, Piercing, an adaptation of Ryū Murakami’s 1994 novel, landing in select theaters and on VOD and digital February 1st. In his 2016 debut film The Eyes of My Mother, Pesce explored the intersection of grief and murder. This time, murder remains, but is accompanied by something more in the vein of a twisted love story whose unexpected approach leaves an indelible mark upon its conclusion.
New parents Reed (Christopher Abbott) and Mona’s (Laia Costa) response to parenthood is vastly different. Mona seems entirely happy taking on the role as a comforting matron, yet Reed struggles. There’s something welling up within him, a voice deep inside telling him to take an ice pick to his daughter, a voice he’s all-too eager to acquiesce to. He devises a plan: check into a hotel, hire a hooker, and murder her. With his materials and strategy in place, he waits in terrible anticipation for Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) to arrive. But the best laid plans don’t always bear fruit, for Jackie, too, is more than she appears and Reed’s evening is about to take a drastic turn.
Piercing is a strange film, weaving in and out of genre categories as easily as it shifts tones. Some of this is likely due to adapting a Japanese novel into English while also updating it for the time period. Additionally, Pesce utilizes and weaponizes expectations by stylizing the film like an Italian giallo story, setting up the audience to expect glorious violence with an underpinning of mystery, sex, and psychological play. In its denouement, Piercing reveals itself as a story between worlds: an aspect which only strengthens the undercurrent themes the film explores. In the opening of Piercing, once it’s past the ’70s-inspired “Feature Presentation” logos and faux VHS tracking, opens on a miniature set of an urban city, building after building stacked neatly next to each other, open windows allowing pure reds, yellows, blues, and all the shades in-between to beam through. The camera pans, the music a mix of orchestral and synth, until it arrives on a specific window. The music gives way to a baby’s cries coming from a red room. Before the first character is seen, Pesce sets mood, tone, and expectations: people stacked upon each other, little-to-no privacy in an urban landscape, with music denoting something terrible lurking around the edges. These are the giallo hallmarks which Pesce use to highlight a threat in a non-descript town, itself a mystery. So when the characters do move from location to location, when they discuss who they are, where they’re going, or where they’ve been, there’s no geo-location to act as an anchor. This renders the meanings of the words being spoken, and the characters at the center of Piercing, a enigma. In order to unveil the truth, it’s not enough to look closer. The edges need to be peeled back to reveal what’s underneath.
Frankly, it’s the details that make Piercing more than a mere cat-and-mouse game: the lighting, the settings, the minor things we’re shown about our characters (Reed works at drawing table offering the first suggestion of a man driven by details; whereas Jackie’s shown as less refined, yet concerned with quality), and even some truly outstanding foley work which both unsettles the audience in its candor and offers insight into Reed’s mind. There is nothing the audience witnesses which doesn’t alarm or tantalize, all of which seems on purpose, as though Pesce is playing with the audience in the same manner in which Reed expects to toy with Jackie, upon her arrival. Pesce teases the audience with threats of violence, then the glory of gamesmanship, which only teases further. In this regard, Piercing is more interested in creating an even playing field than exploring the constructs of Japanese repression and oppression upon women (as examined in Murakami’s 1997 novel Audition, itself famously adapted to film by director Takashi Miike). Pesce’s view appears to be that the means by which men and women express their desires is integral to developing a healthy individual psyche and loving partnership. It’s this specific aspect that makes Piercing so penetrating to the audience: what we’re witnessing isn’t two sociopaths locked in combat, but something more intimate.
If that notion – that a horror story might reveal itself as something far more intimate in its central theme – prompts some tut-tutting, then it might be wise to reconsider the messages from stories in our cultures. While much of Reed seems like a horrible individual, he’s no Patrick Bateman pretending to be human while actually being a monster underneath. Abbott’s portrayal specifically indicates, on several occasions, that Reed merely wants to quiet the urge, not go on an all-out rampage. The fact that the script includes elements that suggest Reed isn’t completely rational – outside of the homicidal tendencies, of course – plays into what the audience expects Reed to be, so Abbott sneaking in a few subtle looks, a few quieter lines, and some shifts in his physicality, clues the observant into Reed’s true self. But Abbott isn’t alone in this picture and his work is elevated by the company he keeps. Costa only gets a few scenes – one which beautifully screws with the audience in a moment teased in the trailer – but there’s a softness she exudes, which enables Mona to stand out against Reed’s rigidity. This is particularly important as the first image of Reed shows him standing over his child with an ice pick, an image the audience must come to grips with and showing that his partner would need to be the antithesis of himself. That said, Wasikowska is the real stand-out of Piercing. Audiences are likely more familiar with her work in 2010’s Alice in Wonderland or 2015’s Crimson Peak, two of several films which suggest an actor inclined to work in as many genres as possible. In this case, Piercing affords her the opportunity to take on multiple roles as she jumps from sex kitten to victim to dominatrix and more, all of which Wasikowska slides into with ease.
The joy of a great horror film is how it enables the viewer to get close to the precipice, to just so nearly touch the violence without actually getting your hands dirty or soiling your soul. Unlike other forms of storytelling, the viewer tends to know that the cabin the characters entered is haunted, the object they touch is cursed, or that the person they desire is truly a succubus. Piercing utilizes, twists, and plays into these expectations in a manner that both delights and confounds. Thankfully, the more esoteric moments are few and even the strangest of moments can be inferred. It’s not perfect, but Piercing is an incredibly engaging exploration of desire without judgement. In particular, Nicolas Pesce makes it clear in his second feature film that the dark places is where he likes to play, however, his stories are less about titillation and more about introspection. In this regard, violence for the sake of violence might bring an audience to see Piercing, but what keeps them locked in is offering something new, something deeper, something darker, something far more penetrating and patient. Something a lot like love.
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital February 1, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.