Back in 2016 Nicolas Pesce wowed with his dark debut The Eyes of My Mother, now, two years later, he follows up with quirky killer-thriller Piercing. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Ryu Murakami (Japan’s other bestselling Murakami), Pesce has chosen to go in a very different direction with his sophomore feature.
Reed (Christopher Abbott) is a successful white collar guy with a beautiful family and a nice home, but recently he’s been waking up standing over his new-born baby with an ice pick in-hand. Scared of what he might do, Reed leaves his family under the rouse of a business trip, signs into a hotel on the opposite side of town, and prepares to murder an unsuspecting sex worker.
From the opening credits, which play out over a miniature city lit up like a Christmas tree, and lurid Day-Glo exploitation-style title; it’s a totally different flavour to the sulky monochrome nightmare of Pesce’s debut. But, even though it might not corrode your soul in the ways The Eyes of My Mother did, Piercing has its own uniquely grotesque charms. Its funnier, more vibrant, but arguably intensely effective because of how sincere it is. Hard to believe, given the synopsis, but there’s a lot of fun to be had with this film, not least thanks to its leads.
Christopher Abbott might not be as charismatic a sociopath as some, but he is intensely watchable because of his bumbling and never more than when Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) turns up and pushes him way out of his comfort zone. Wasikowska is superb, quietly hilarious, subtly controlling, and wonderfully unpredictable, it’s a powerful star turn right up there with her work on Stoker.
That being said, the sound design is an absolute treat. The seductive and nerve-wracking scrape of a blade point on skin, the invasive sounds of puncture and breath, Piercing is near-giallo in its fetishizing of sensuality, but with a much fresher air courtesy of Pesce’s genre-wariness. There’s a superb sequence where Reed plays out the murder with an imaginary body, and, ridiculous as he may look staggering around carrying nothing, the sound effects are all perfectly timed; the sloshing of blood, dragging of feet, even the dropping of a blade. And it happens simply because Pesce knows we’ve seen a murder before. We’ve seen plenty of sordid pre-planned murders through the eyes of murderers, but you’ve probably not seen one like this. From its progressive Jazz-infused soundtrack to the tracks it borrows from classic Giallo films (The Red Queen Kills Seven Times and Tenebra) Piercing is a very modern, fresh, approach to classic psycho-sexual elements.
The effects too are carefully used. Pesce can easily orchestrate grisliness, he’s proven that already, but here he’s constantly toying with the act of stabbing. It’s a film which makes you realise how throwaway most films are with stabbing through its refusal to actually give us the kind of violence we expect. There’s only one really gory scene in the film and it comes as a total stark messy shock in a film fundamentally sterile and ordered. Even then, the finale punchline is bound to have an even bigger reaction than the overt gore, which is no doubt Pesce’s point.
Pesce’s film does a great service to the source novel by capturing its essence, the sheer black comedy in the core concept: a man plans the perfect murder but the one thing it relies on, is a submissive victim. And, beyond all that, it’s actually refreshing to see a film like this which doesn’t take itself so seriously. Psycho-chillers have always been a hazardous batch, prone to cliché, pretension, classical music, and dull middle-class serial killers filling our ears with gloomy existential drivel. But then that’s the point of the film. In many ways it’s as much of a twist on a classic as The Eyes of My Mother was, and both very smartly readdress the concept of “victim-hood” whilst delivering stunningly unique genre entries.
Bottom line: Piercing is a delicious twist of classic and contemporary psycho-sexual elements, bound with a wicked sense of humour. Further proof Nicolas Pesce is a man to watch.
Dir. Nicolas Pesce
Stars. Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Bond, Laia Costa