Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Writer: Nicolas Pesce
Producer: Jacob Wasserman, Josh Mond, Antonio Campos, Schuyler Weiss
Stars: Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa, Maria Dizzia, Marin Ireland, Wendell Pierce
A family man’s plan to murder a prostitute takes an unexpected turn when his target reveals she is also emotionally unstable.
“Piercing” presents an atypical portrait of a murderer in the making. Reed isn’t a comically sneering movie villain or a Ted Bundy type who toothily relishes the spectacle of slaughter. Reed is frighteningly ordinary, which is why his status as a stand-in for anyone’s neighbor next door makes Christopher Abbott’s bell and whistle-less portrayal of him so uncomfortably intriguing.
Sick with a seed of sociopathy still beginning to bud, Reed harbors an unhealthy urge to carry out a killing. For him, committing such a crime could be likened to something as innocuous as a sneeze or as fleetingly euphoric as an orgasm. Murder is a nagging blockage to be removed before his preoccupied mind can let him get back to life as a milquetoast man with a wife and infant daughter.
Under the guise of a business trip, Reed packs a bondage bag of rope restraints, mouth bits, and an ominous ice pick. After checking into a hotel, Reed rehearses quiet conversation and then sudden strangulation on an imaginary prostitute en route to his room. Unspoken questions visibly widen his eyes with both childlike curiosity and eerie excitement. Is this how it is supposed to go? Is this what it will feel like?
The stark scenes composing the film’s first fourth set up a haunting exposé of amoral anticipation as Reed’s longstanding fantasy evolves into fearful reality. Adapting Ryu Murakami’s same-named novel, writer/director Nicolas Pesce concurrently paints each set to have the slightly fake feel of a theatrical production. Taking some of the uneasy air out of the terrifying tableau, Pesce also pinches a tinge of absurdity into Reed’s dress rehearsal by scoring it to “Girl from Ipanema.”
“Piercing” fully intends to be regarded seriously. Not so seriously as to lose sight of the other seat on its seesaw, where giallo flair by way of grindhouse grit sits with a side eye on exploitation era entertainment.
“Piercing” doesn’t credit a composer. The soundtrack instead advances the film’s throwback tone by repurposing scores from music maestros of Italian cinema. Two tunes from Bruno Nicolai set the starting stage while Stelvio Cipriani’s “Too Risky a Day for a Regatta” from “Tentacles” fills in for a title song. Goblin’s more immediately recognizable theme from Dario Argento’s “Profondo Rosso” makes a notable appearance too. A track-scratched ‘Feature Presentation’ bumper at the beginning and montage of miniature buildings under still credit cards completes the 1970s Times Square theater texture.
With Reed as ready as he’ll ever be, Jackie arrives from the escort agency. At this early point, viewers drawn in by the promise of a chilling premise run the risk of becoming wayward bystanders while “Piercing” becomes a tête-à-tête between two broken people. Neither Reed nor Jackie is fully capable of complete human connection, yet they struggle to relate to one another through bizarre behavior all the same.
Going from dissection of a criminal mind to an examination of two strangers uncovering mutual emotional damage doesn’t make “Piercing” the most energetically engaging movie. Horror functions as a hook for framing interpersonal drama built by stylistically sharp cinematography and assuredly artful direction. It’s hardly a bait and switch since “Piercing” plays coy from the outset about precisely what kind of exploratory exercise it intends to be. But anyone on board for an “American Psycho” adjacent character study may by unmoved by what essentially amounts to a mood piece whose purpose varies by viewer.
It’s unlikely “Piercing” ever intends to truly titillate. Flashbacks to S&M sex and other perversions related to prostitution are rarely arousing. The movie’s themes mainly mean to incite introspection, to instill slight sickliness underneath the skin, and to stoke interest in illuminating a darker side of what motivates men and women to hurt themselves as well as each other.
How successful “Piercing” is at being provocative is, of course, open to wide ranges of subjective evaluation. Abbott and co-star Mia Wasikowska play well with and without each other, pulling their weight and then some in the equation of what makes the movie move. Alternately sweetly sympathetic or chillingly icy, they both externalize internal tumult as character conflicts that make their interplay alluring more often than their exchanges foster yawns.
Uneven pacing presents more of a problem. “Piercing” isn’t so much slow burn as casually incandescent. Tethering two people together, even for only 75 minutes, can tax patience in ways that Spartan production design, no matter how lovely, can’t completely counteract. By virtue of its stage play aesthetic, the film refrains from hitting a high heat, bubbling on an acceptable simmer that can singe fingertips without peaking into a full fire. Whether that temperature holds enough warmth comes down to how much interpretive arthouse cream someone prefers in his/her serial killer coffee.
Review Score: 60