Piercing is a stylish exercise in retro horror-thriller filmmaking, but its stabs (no pun intended) at something deeper are mostly ineffective.
Following his feature debut on 2016's acclaimed (if polarizing) The Eyes of My Mother, writer/director Nicolas Pesce is back with another horror film in the shape of Piercing. An adaptation of the 1994 novel by Ryû Murakami, the movie premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and further establishes Pesce as a storyteller with a talent for creating dread - albeit, this time with a healthy dose of grim humor, for good measure. At the same time, it feels like the result of an up and coming artist experimenting with form, as opposed to trying to make something really meaningful. Piercing is a stylish exercise in retro horror-thriller filmmaking, but its stabs (no pun intended) at something deeper are mostly ineffective.
Christopher Abbott stars in Piercing as Reed, a seemingly average family man who finds himself increasingly struggling to contain his desire to kill someone. Not wanting to hurt his newborn child or wife Mona (Laia Costa), Reed instead makes plans to murder an unsuspecting prostitute while away on what he tells Mona is a business trip. Upon arriving at the hotel where he intends to commit the crime, Reed meticulously plans out everything he'll need to do to carry out the murder as quickly and quietly as possible - from the necessary equipment to the way he'll ask his escort if he can tie them up.
However, Reed gets more than he bargained for when his call girl, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), arrives at his room. While she seems unassuming at first, it quickly becomes clear that Jackie is extremely troubled and might be even more disturbed than Reed, in some ways. When one thing leads to another and the pair are off on a trip to the hospital, Jackie even tells her client that she knows the real reason he hired her to begin with. As the night stretches on, Reed grows increasingly panicked and uncertain whether Jackie really knows what he wants and is toying with him, or if she's got him playing a dangerous game of her own making now.
In a way, Piercing is to Pesce what You're Next is to Adam Wingard. It's a throwback that demonstrates its director's ability to evoke the style of an older genre, and mostly succeeds in its efforts to subvert conventions. At the same time, there's not a lot going on under the hood of the car, as much as Piercing might have you believe otherwise. The film wants to get at deeper ideas about voyeurism and desire, but its narrative offers more of a surface-level visceral experience than a thematically layered or meaningful one. Movies as varied as American Psycho, Audition (which was also adapted from a Murakami novel), and even P.T. Anderson's Phantom Thread have toyed with similar concepts, yet managed to be either funnier and/or more biting in the way they observe the gender politics of horror - or, in Audition's case, more disturbing - than the final results here.
Still, as an attempt to capture the feel of an old-fashioned giallo film (or, perhaps more accurately, a non-Italian gialllo like Peeping Tom), Piercing is a good showcase for its director. It has all the stylistic flourishes one would expect from a pulpy genre homage, ranging from scenes unfolding in split screen to camera movement and lighting that give it the illusion of being a movie that could've been released in the '70s (right down to its splatter film violence). Some of these techniques feel more gimmicky than others, which makes it all the more difficult for Piercing to maintain the tonal balancing act between horror and bleak comedy that it's going for. It's a generally polished homage all the same, even if it succeeds more in recreating the look of an older genre without giving it a fresh lease on life the way other horror-thriller throwbacks (like It Follows) have in recent years.
At the same time, there is something fascinating about the shifting power dynamics between Reed and Jackie, especially in the scenes where Reed (and, by proxy, the audience) is trying to figure just what, exactly, is going through his companion's mind. The role of a wannabe sophisticated serial killer plays to Abbott's strengths as an actor, even if the film never goes far enough in exploring Reed's traumatic past and its lasting impact to make him feel like a fully-realized character. Something similar could be said for Jackie, though of the pair she's the more compelling and entertaining to watch thanks to Wasikowska. The Stoker and Crimson Peak star has carved out a niche for herself as a specialist in this kind of retro-horror exercise and hits all the right notes throughout the film, as her character's mood and emotions continuously seem to turn on a dime. In a cat and mouse game where one can never be too certain which is which, it's Wasikowska who makes the whole thing enjoyable.
That being said, Pesce is as much the star here as either of his lead actors. The filmmaker gets to show off his sense of craftsmanship throughout Piercing and demonstrates a real knack for using sound to make the film's moments of violence all the more unsettling and grotesque, without necessarily showing as much of it as possible. In fact, the most gruesome (and darkly comical) scene in the entire movie is perhaps one that involves no actual violence and instead follows Reed as he imagines how he will carry out his intended heinous crime. More than anything, Piercing suggests that Pesce is still evolving his style as a filmmaker by trying his hand at different horror genres and has a bright future ahead of him, should he continue to refine his sensibilities and learn to use his style to bring out the substance of his movies.
All things considered, Piercing is a flawed but interesting sophomore effort from Pesce and should leave his fans curious to see him leave his stamp on another horror genre (J-horror) with next year's Grudge reboot. This one is probably too nasty and twisted to have much appeal outside of the hardcore horror crowd, but those who appreciate a well-constructed love letter to the genre's history will almost undoubtedly like Piercing more than others. The goes double for those who've enjoyed Wasikowska's previous work and are glad to see that she's keeping it weird and wild with her film choices.
Piercing is now playing in select theaters, and is available On Demand and Digital HD. It is 81 minutes long and is rated R for aberrant violent and sexual content, nudity, and language.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!