Piercing (2018)

Piercing first published by VODzilla.co

Piercing opens, and indeed closes, with an external shot of buildings, as the camera zooms and cranes past the windows of different apartments, each containing its own cellular family, and stories within storeys. Of course the film – Nicholas Pesce’s second feature, following his monochrome serial killer debut The Eyes Of My Mother (2016) – will zero in quickly onto one or two of these stories, set across different rooms in different homes and hotels. Initially, though, Pesce uses this urban nightscape to establish a noir-ish atmosphere, while the fact that the buildings, for all the exquisite detail of their rendering, are still clearly models, introduces an element of stylised artifice to the proceedings, as though the events that follow are taking place in a Wes Anderson-style doll’s house rather than in the world. Indeed, the tale that Piercing tells will be of a psychological bent, showing us not just the insides of these rooms, but also of minds.

As his loving wife Mona (Laia Costa) slumbers on the bed behind him, Reed (Christopher Abbott) stands over a cot, staring grimly down at their newborn baby asleep within it. We can tell Reed’s thoughts are as dark as the room from the way he menacingly clutches – even raises – an icepick over the baby. This is a man who seemingly has it all, yet is deeply unhappy in his domestic situation, his head clouded with dangerous, destructive ideas, and his mind set on murder. So, unable to sleep, let alone to smile, Reed secretly formulates an outlet for all his negative feelings, meticulously recording the details of his plan in a secret notebook. This plan involves going to a hotel alone on a supposed business trip, hiring an escort (he notes that she will have to be an “S&M” one so that his request to tie her up will not seem out of place), and brutally killing her. There will, he writes, be blood. Yet when Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) turns up at his room, herself unhappy and seeking an outlet for her own errant desires, things will not go quite to plan…

Piercing is like the thrill-kill twin to Phantom Thread (2017), with even its final line (“Can we eat first?”) echoing the last words of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film (“I’m hungry”). For Pesce too allows a male protagonist with mother issues to turn his aching hungers, hidden desires and deep traumas into a sadomasochistic game of power where cruel control is surrendered as much is it is maintained, and where the focus quickly shifts to an anti-heroine far more interesting than the anti-hero. In a straight-seeming narrative littered with deluded fantasies and eventually drug-induced hallucinations, we are invited to witness a dramatisation of Reed’s inner anguish, as his newly formed, rapidly evolving relationship with Jackie merges with his unresolved feelings about his abusive mother, his wife (now herself a mother) and himself – a self shallowly performing the semblance of ordinary family life while the depths below are in turmoil. 

All this unfolds to the accompaniment of pre-existing pieces by the likes of Goblin, Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai, magpied to evoke the psychosexual frisson of classic gialli. Yet the film is adapted by Pesce from the 1994 novel by Ryu Murakami – the same novelist whose Audition inspired Takashi Miike’s horror masterpiece of 1999 – and so will not surprise viewers for taking up temporary residence in its characters’ interior spaces far more than it catalogues their external depravities. For here, whether we are on the outside looking in, or on the inside looking out, Pesce has crafted a compartmentalised, boxed-in environment without end, where pain and torture are as much states of mind as they are the bricks and mortar of genre. With its steady accumulation of blunt contusions, deep bites, bloody gashes and permanent scarring, Piercing is a mess of injuries and damage – but as Jackie, speaking of her bed’s pristine silken sheets, insists, “It’s okay to make a mess.”

Summary: A darkly comic giallo-esque romance, torturously literalising all the dynamics of S&M, while accommodating the persistence of trauma.

© Anton Bitel