With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it’s that time when we’re going to begin seeing Christmas decorations come down, replaced by even more obnoxious candy hearts and half-naked baby cupids. Love will pollute the air and make anyone who doesn’t have a partner sick with nausea. And romantic movies will flood the big-screen. As always though, the horror genre has us covered, this time with a love story in Piercing that is so sick and depraved that it might be brilliant…
…Based off of the novel by Ryu Murakami, Piercing is written/directed by Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother), or as I like to call him, one of horror’s next great visionaries. Piercing is a simple though wildly fucked up story about Reed (Christopher Abbott), a married man who has realized he needs something in his life. He needs to kill someone. Kissing his baby and wife (Laia Costa) goodbye, Reed checks into a hotel and orders a prostitute whom he plans on murdering. But when Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) arrives, Reed gets so much more than he bargained for, and a strange, violent love story begins.
Pesce immediately throws us into a stylish world accompanied by a beautiful score that perfectly blends 70s Giallo with a romantic Norah Jones vibe. Beautiful production design and an abundance of rich color give the film a fun, quirky tone that seems at odds with the violent nature of the script, but works well together regardless. Like most great films, Piercing has a timeless feel. There is no discernible time period. Much of the reality in which our characters live has a fake, dreamlike quality. The cityscapes we’re shown are mere models, a fact which Pesce wants us to notice, because a major theme of Piercing is that our characters aren’t actually living, at least not the life that they’re supposed to be.
Take Reed for example. A married man with a beautiful wife and a newly born baby, he should be on top of the world. But when we look into Reed’s head, (a viewpoint which the majority of the film is told from), reality is not what it seems. He misinterprets what others say to fit his own needs. He imagines phone calls with his wife casually convincing him to just go ahead and kill Jackie. And his own baby speaks to him in a strange demon voice, which I’m pretty sure babies don’t do. Pesce gets us so far deep into Reed’s head that, even though his whole goal is murder, we learn to love him. Abbott helps that love along with a sad, shy performance that gives Reed a certain charm and allows us to let our guard down with him. Piercing forces us to question whether or not Reed is really all that bad of a guy as he struggles with the decision to kill Jackie or not, making his journey something which is more fun and blackly-comedic than you might imagine.
And then there’s Jackie, also played exceptionally by Wasikowska. The opposite of Reed, Jackie isn’t shy. She exudes sex and confidence. But like Reed, she is damaged as well, and we discover that Jackie has an equally violent core hiding beneath her eccentric personality. Wasikowska is perfection in the role, as she has the ability to toy with the audience in the same way she is with Reed. Rather than go for the obviously sinister or vicious portrayal, Wasikowska instead manages to maintain a mask of emotion. We can never really be too sure what she’s thinking. In that way, she’s kind of like a cat. One moment, she’s giving us those big, sympathetic eyes, and in the next, she’s violently lashing out, all with the subtlest of facial changes. Piercing is a contained film which relies heavily on the performances of its two main characters, and both are utterly mesmerizing in their roles.
Like Audition meets Lost in Translation meets Hard Candy, it’s as if all three of those films went out to Vegas, took some LSD, got in a raunchy three-way, did some other weird shit, and popped out Piercing. Piercing is a wicked, violent love story unlike anything I’ve seen in quite a while. This is the sort of horror film that does less scaring, and instead focuses more on the deliciously uncomfortable situation. Awkward and perverse, we sweat it out with Reed and Jackie, as Pesce treats the premise more like a first date rather than a setup for murder. Both characters go back and forth with one another, in a way where we can practically hear them thinking, “does he/she like me? Do I like him/her?” We’ve all been there. That odd date that isn’t going as smoothly as we had hoped, yet there’s something there worth exploring. Reed and Jackie are terribly complex characters. These are two people who seem to want to die, but don’t, and have finally found someone to give them the violent experience they’ve been searching for, leading to a sexy though ugly cat and mouse game that will keep the audience completely on edge and wondering how this is all going to end.
If you’ve seen Pesce’s debut film, The Eyes of My Mother, then you know Pesce has a penchant for insane violence. Piercing is no exception. Once the film takes an unexpectedly violent turn, all bets are off. I can almost imagine Pesce putting on a black rain coat, laying plastic on the floor, and saying “dare me”. Now, I’m not going to say Piercing is going to have you covering your mouth and running out of the room looking for a vomit bag. It’s not. There are some horrific, bloody moments, but Pesce isn’t worried about coating the walls with gore. Piercing is an uncomfortable film, and so the violence itself is more of the shockingly personal variety. One of the most cringe-worthy moments is a simple nipple-piercing, but it’s the way that Pesce and cinematographer Zack Galler frame these moments that really gets under our skin. The terror in Piercing could best be described like that iconic scene in Fulci’s Zombie, where an eyeball is slowly pushed towards a jagged piece of wood before finally getting pierced and splashing white goop everywhere. Piercing drags us further and further into that disturbed feeling, the one that makes us shift in our seats, to the point where we expect vile imagery around every corner. But Pesce knows how to tease that expectation, saving those moments for when the audience least expects them. There’s one bad trip of a sequence that will make you nauseous, the imagery is so startling.
Piercing probably sounds like a near perfect film right now, and for some of us, it will be, but for others, the jarring ending is going to leave viewers shocked in all of the wrong ways. I won’t spoil anything here, but what I will say is that Piercing ends on a note which is going to leave audiences feeling as if there is more to see. It’s a fair criticism, and is exactly how I felt the first time (I’ve watched it twice now). What I’ll say to that is that Piercing is not the film you think it is. I’ve already spent all of this time describing how this is more of a love story with a violent nature, which I don’t think any of us were expecting. So, while it’s fair to think the film falls apart in the end, I would argue that there is no other way for Piercing to end. It’s the sort of poetic last moment that will leave viewers talking, so, love or hate it, it does its job.
There just aren’t many films like Piercing. This film shatters all expectations, creates new ones, and shatters those as well, all in under 90 minutes. It will make you laugh, it will charm you, it will shock you, and it may even make you want to throw up. Between Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother, Pesce is now officially a director to be excited about each and every time he announces a new film on the way. Next that we know of? A remake of The Grudge. So, get ready for one hell of a frightening ghost story.
Piercing is now available on VOD.
By Matt Konopka