Based on Ryu Murakami’s cult novel of the same name, “Piercing” is one of the most visually captivating and wickedly stylized films to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Director Nicolas Pesce brings his own sleazy visual style to the tale of a disturbed man named Reed (Christopher Abbott) who plots to murder an anonymous prostitute (Mia Wasikowska) in order to fulfill his savage urges. The film seamlessly blends psychological horror and terror with comedy as a bloodthirsty romance blossoms between the closet psychopath and the equally unstable call girl.
Film fans make the best directors, and it’s clear that Pesce can be categorized as both. His elegant camerawork and technique pays homage to cinematic greats like Quentin Tarantino, Takashi Miike and Dario Argento. This is an example of some very clever filmmaking and a unique, wholly original visual style that became love at first sight for me. Pesce includes the most unexpected elements, from detailed set miniatures to computer generated animation to an original score that shifts from severe to whimsical, all of which combine to make this sick and twisted story feel even more so. The humor is funny, but it’s the type where you’ll gulp with a lump in your throat after every laugh because it all feels so wrong.
The funniest and most memorable scene is one where Reed carefully plots and plans out the murder. He pores over every detail, from overpowering her with chloroform right down to her eventual dismemberment in the hotel’s bathtub and final disposal in a trash bag. It’s a sequence full of pantomime that’s accompanied by the sounds of the actual murder, and it’s clever as hell. Abbott is phenomenal in the physicality of the scene, sweating and straining as he stabs and struggles to carry her imaginary body.
The performances are convincing all around, especially considering the unsettling material. These are daring and brave roles, especially for Wasikowska. Portraying mentally unstable and depraved characters is one thing, but also selling it as an unhealthy rom-com between two very, very disturbed people is a whole other ballgame — and the actors nail it.
This story goes even deeper into unexpected places, some of it shocking and most of it disturbing. Fantasy and reality are sometimes blurred to the point where it’s totally unclear what’s real and what’s imaginary, as Reed hears people encouraging him to commit murder so he can “get it out of his system” (including his baby, his wife, and the receptionist for the escort service).
There are hints of perverse childhood abuse that caused Reed great mental anguish that are touched on briefly in a series of drug-induced flashbacks, and (red alert for animal lovers!) a fluffy bunny meets a depraved, violent end. If that doesn’t make you squirm, Pesce builds unrelenting tension from things like a character simply holding an ice pick to close-up shots of the duffle bag that holds the man’s murder kit. The film never gets too gory but it is bloody and not for the faint of heart.
From its shocking first scene where Reed threatens his infant daughter to the open-ended finale, this is a bold and audacious work from an equally bold and audacious filmmaker, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.