In director Nicolas Pesce’s shocking first feature, an infant child was kidnapped and raised by a lunatic. In the first few minutes of his followup “Piercing,” an infant nearly gets stabbed by an ice pick. It comes as no surprise that Pesce has raised the bar for his twisted genre sensibilities in this concise sophomore effort, a slick adaptation of Ryu Murukami’s novel about another disturbed mind who finds a more productive outlet than infanticide in S&M. Though it falls short of the eerie surprises found in his black-and-white debut, “Piercing” delivers just enough macabre delights to confirm a darkly comedic sensibility on the rise.
At the center of the movie’s concise premise is Reed (Christopher Abbott), who gazes at his child with a baffled stare before explaining his new plan in a monotonous voiceover: He’ll entrap a prostitute in a hotel room and murder her, thus expunging the desire to murder his child. Abbott’s dead-eyed expression establishes a grimly amusing tone, as he prepares for his plan with a business-like matter-of-factness; elevator music underscores his motions in a hotel room as he pantomimes the murder accompanied by grotesque sound effects.
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Pesce cross-cuts this preparatory sequence with the ultimate foil to Reed’s plan — rambunctious hooker Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), who arrives at Reed’s room with some deranged kinks of her own. A few unexpected stabbings later, and Reed finds himself spending a much longer night with his victim than he anticipated, as the power dynamic suddenly shifts.
A world apart from the drab chiaroscuro horror of “The Eyes of My Mother,” which drew heavily from the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” tradition of visceral survival stories, “Piercing” plays out like a swift tribute to Takashi Miike’s “Audition” filtered through Quentin-Tarantinoesque exuberance: Split screens, ubiquitous pop songs, and elegant camerawork make it clear that this wacky two-hander treasures idiosyncratic flourishes over narrative sophistication; clocking in at a brisk 81 minutes, it’s at once enjoyable in the moment and utterly disposable.
Pesce struggles to transform these outrageous circumstances into anything more than a jokey provocation, at least until Reed’s psychological history comes to the foreground in a series of disturbing flashbacks. Even then, the conflict only cuts surface deep, though the actors never stop giving themselves over to the material. Wasikowska is a particularly remarkable screen presence, her manic attitude hovering in a state of ambiguity throughout — as Reed contemplates out loud during one heavy-handed sequence, it’s impossible to tell if she’s one step ahead of his lunacy or concocting a scheme of her own. The horror geek’s answer to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the movie doesn’t engage with these characters’ sexual desires so much as it leaves them up for our imaginations, which is ultimately a lot more disturbing than anything explicit.
The bloody finale is a fascinating showdown in which the characters’ erotic and violent tendencies become so intermingled they’re impossible to distinguish. Then the movie just… ends, with a dispassionate conclusion that suggests the whole buildup was a lark in the first place. It’s at once bold and disappointing, giving the impression of a filmmaker eager to please his audience while leaving them begging for much more.
None of that takes away from inspired CGI visions of Reed’s nightmarish past, actors operating at the peak of their talents, and a jangly score for the ages that magnifies the surreal circumstances at every turn. “Piercing” too often gets lost in the fog of its deranged characters, but just as frequently transforms their lunacy into a heightened form of escapist entertainment. In a movie where everyone’s crazy, “Piercing” makes their malady infectious.
“Piercing” premiered in the Midnight section at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.