Caught in a Bad Romance: A 'Piercing' film review
by Will Lindus
Reed has a plan. He packs his bags, gives his wife and his baby a goodbye kiss, and departs for what appears to be a normal, run-of-the-mill business trip. Reed also has dark urges, though, formed by trauma from his past. For Reed, the only way to quell these urges is to give in to them, to taste the forbidden fruits of violence and of murder so that he can cast these thoughts from his mind. After arriving at his hotel room, Reed meticulously prepares to enact his plan to call an escort service, to invite a prostitute to his room, and to kill her to sate his dark appetites.
If you think you’ve nailed down what Piercing is all about based on the introductory description, then you’re in for a surprise. What begins as a story reminiscent of an episode of Dexter morphs into something wholly unique and quite disturbing when the prostitute, an unhinged woman named Jackie with a dark edge of her own, finally arrives.
Piercing is the sophomore film by director Nicolas Pesce, who made a splash in 2016 with the indie horror hit The Eyes of My Mother. Whereas that film felt like a monochrome arthouse retelling of a 70s slasher flick, Pesce utilizes a different approach for Piercing, demonstrating his versatility as a horror director as well as his eagerness to experiment with style. Here, Pesce creates a discomforting blend of contemporary Cronenberg, 1970s psychosexual thrillers, and a splash of DePalma. With each frame, Piercing threatens sex and violence, and while it certainly delivers on these points, it is the ever-present tension that permeates every scene that demands attention. All of this is accomplished with a color palette that feels intentionally (but subtly) artificial, along with the disquieting absence of any ‘real’ establishing shots of roads or buildings. Whenever such a shot is required, Pesce utilizes models and backdrops, casting the film almost like a macabre stage production. The effect is unsettling.
While a few supporting characters appear throughout the film, this is essentially a two-hander, with Christopher Abbott (Reed) and Mia Wasikowska (Jackie) carrying the momentum of the narrative with their fearless performances. The two possess a chemistry that is as attractive as it is repulsive, with the characters pushing and pulling from one another as their power dynamics shift. It’s dizzying, but it works.
Also of note is the origin of the story. The story that formed the inspiration for the script was penned by Ryû Murakami, a Japanese horror writer with my titles to his credit, most notably being Takashi Miike’s notorious horror film Audition. Murakami’s story, adapted for script and for screen by Pesce, almost defies description, existing in a realm that is rarely seen in contemporary horror.
Bottom Line: Look, I’ve left a lot of details out of this review because part of the joy of Piercing is in its frustrating inability to remain predictable. The more you know about Piercing, the less enjoyable its twists and turns become. Even the trailer (which I’ve linked below) gives away too much, so use caution. I suspect that this film will be divisive, and that’s okay; not all films are for all people. Even if I’m the only person who enjoys this fucked up horror love story, I can live with that. It is unsettling, it is disturbing, and it is challenging, but for this horror fan, it was also a rewarding breath of fresh air.
4 out of 5 Bear Paws