Just a couple of years ago, up-and-coming director Nicolas Pesce celebrated the world premiere of his debut feature, The Eyes of My Mother, at the Sundance Film Festival, and he’s now returned in 2018 with his follow-up effort, Piercing, a slick and stylized exploration of obsession and murderous intentions. Featuring memorable performances from Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska, a savagely funny and surprising script from Pesce, who adapted Ryû Murakami’s novel of the same name for the big screen, and a neo-retro approach to both the score and visual style of Piercing, Pesce confidently proves here that when it comes to telling stories, he enjoys screwing around with viewers' sensibilities and expectations. And I am all about it.
In Piercing, we meet Reed (Abbott) who seems to be like every other struggling father and husband, except that he’s harboring a dark secret: in his teens, he murdered a woman, and ever since, he’s been obsessed with the idea of killing again, methodically prepping and planning for such an event for years in his trusty murder diary. As Reed finally feels ready to indulge his homicidal tendencies, he fakes a business trip, says goodbye to his wife (Laia Costa), and orders himself a prostitute after checking into a hotel. But when off-kilter call girl Jackie (Wasikowska) shows up on his doorstep, Reed gets more than he bargained for with his intended victim, and his night takes some very unexpected turns.
Because I’m not familiar with the source material at all, there were a lot of surprises to Piercing that I didn’t necessarily see coming outright, and I enjoyed the fact that while the story itself has some seriously dark aspects to it, Pesce approaches the material with a caustic sense of humor, allowing some brief moments of levity. Some folks might not be into Pesce’s brand of humor (the film opens with an ice pick being dangled over a helpless infant, so you know very quickly whether or not you’re going to be on board), but one of the best ways to confront the ugliness of human nature is to poke a little fun at it, and Pesce successfully achieves that with Piercing.
Much of the humor in the film is driven by Abbott’s bumbling wanna-be serial killer. He’s essentially a less-assured version of Patrick Bateman, pantomiming his planned misdeeds as he holds fake conversations with himself in an effort to make sure he’s able to fulfill his demented dream of killing again. We also get glimpses of Reed’s past in some surreal flashbacks, where we learn just why he’s been so fixated on the idea of murder, and Abbott does an excellent job of providing Reed with some much-needed humanity in Piercing.
With Wasikowska, her character initially feels like something of the typical “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” who has arrived on Reed’s doorstep to inject his life with a dose of quirkiness, but that is certainly not the case in Piercing at all. Sure, Jackie has her own peculiarities, but she’s not here to provide Reed with some sort of enlightenment about his life, or make him feel better about who he really is as a person. Jackie’s got her own game to play, and Wasikowska is endlessly enthralling in Piercing, especially once she realizes that Reed isn’t the shy, awkward nice guy he appears to be.
While it may not pack the emotional wallop of The Eyes of My Mother (an experience I haven’t been able to shake off for years now), that doesn’t mean Piercing isn’t just as engaging or entertaining. Pesce has gone a completely different route for his latest movie, crafting a razor-sharp game of cat and mouse that’s heightened by a distinct visual style from cinematographer Zack Galler, whose camerawork compliments Piercing’s cool detachedness perfectly, and I’m madly in love with this movie’s score and soundtrack (bonus points to Pesce for utilizing "Justice" over the film’s end credits). Piercing is certainly not a movie for everyone, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Pesce, and I hope he continues to push buttons in what’s shaping up to be a very promising career.
Movie Score: 3.5/5
In case you missed it, check here to catch up on our other live coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.