Reed (Christopher Abbott) has a problem. He’s gainfully employed, married, and a new father, but something’s missing in his life. Something that he needs to make him whole. And unlike many unfulfilled people, he’s able to identify it and turn it into a weekend project: Reed needs to kill a prostitute.
Obviously, this is a wildly problematic setup - made even more so when you realise it’s being presented as dark comedy. But given that it’s based on a book by Ryu Murakami, author of Audition, chances are it will twist its premise in some shape or form. Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing is a delightfully fucked-up film that explores delightfully fucked-up people in unexpected (and yes, delightful) ways.
The unlucky victim - or is she? - turns out to be Jackie (Mia Wasikowska). She’s a young woman earning a decent income as an escort, yet barely holding her life together - something’s missing for her, too. And as Reed prepares, or rather comically overprepares, to do his dark business, he’s stopped in his tracks when he finds Jackie repeatedly stabbing herself in the thigh in his hotel room’s bathroom. Taken aback, he finds himself taking her to the hospital, then ending up at her place, believing that Jackie is into the whole "murder" thing.
What follows from there is a psychosexual game of cat and mouse, in which the two combatants test each other’s sadomasochistic boundaries - and their own. With reversal after reversal, the tables turn in ways both violent and sexual, forming a bizarre sort of courtship ritual. But Piercing is unlike any romance you or I have seen (unless you're very adventurous indeed).
Given its stagey intimacy - the whole movie takes place, essentially, in two rooms - much of Piercing's success rests upon its two lead actors. Luckily, in Abbott and Wasikowska, Pesce finds performers who are absolutely game. Abbott does terrific, darkly comic work, between his sardonic voiceover and self-consciously forced charm, concealing all kinds of trauma and psychopathy underneath a stoic, handsome exterior. Reed is a pitiably self-involved wannabe-psychopath, and his efforts to become one are presented in such an amusingly mundane way that it’s hard not to enjoy watching him, despite it all.
What Reed doesn’t take into account is that other people could ever be as damaged or dangerous as he is, and that’s where Wasikowska’s Jackie comes in. Jackie’s a bit of a mess, and she’d be just as much of a mess regardless of which profession she held. Piercing is unique among films with the phrase “kill a prostitute” in their logline, in that Jackie holds her own against her would-be murderer without the film descending into a hackneyed revenge plot. There's a curiosity in Jackie which, coupled with her own psychological issues, makes her fascinating to watch. Wasikowska makes that happen almost entirely with micro-expression and gesture - great work, but also a sign of one of the film's weaknesses.
The primary storytelling issue in Piercing lies, most likely, in its translation from page to screen. I haven't read the book, but something missing from the film is the inner thoughts of its characters. Reed's past is explored via flashbacks that do more to disturb than to illustrate, while Jackie's past is left untouched. Though Wasikowska does a tremendous job of painting myriad complexities through her performance, she doesn't get the inner monologue that Abbott's character (literally) does. Granted, that turns her character into a fascinating enigma, with the audience forced to read into her subtle acting work, but this is a movie about a relationship. It’s the story of these two weirdos, together, and we end up wishing we understood them just a touch better.
Stylistically, Piercing sees Pesce breaking entirely with the style he set up in his debut The Eyes of My Mother, moving instead into a luxurious giallo / de Palma homage. Using techniques like split-screens, quoted music from Italian composers, and a fetish for leather, violence, and sleaze, he executes his homage with a sparkling sheen of production value, adding intoxicating visual flavour. Sets are painstakingly detailed and lit with delicious chiaroscuro, while exterior establishers are achieved via gorgeous miniature work.
Piercing is a small film, and at 80-odd minutes, a slight one. As such, it might disappoint viewers looking for something more fleshed-out. There's an argument to be made, too, that it cuts to credits just as it finds its feet, robbing the audience of a certain degree of payoff. But to follow through would be to overindulge, to render pornographic what should be a tantalising tease. In a way, the movie practicing a cinematic form of edging is a perfect match for its central relationship.
Perhaps it’s easiest to describe Piercing solely through its building blocks: a story from the writer of Audition, adapted by the director of Eyes of My Mother, into a darkly funny giallo version of Phantom Thread, driven by great performances from Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska. And though it feels like a minor film, it’s exactly the kind of grotesquely humorous (and even more grotesquely erotic) work that can really ruin your evening in the best possible way.
If that doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know how to sell it to you.