Much like watching a balloon deflate when you expect it to pop, Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing promises a high volume of blood, tension and sex but delivers only a fraction of what is teased throughout the film.
Adapted from the Ryu Murakami novel of the same name, Piercing tells the story of Reed (Christopher Abbott), a husband and father with an urge to kill. The film kicks off with Reed on the verge of stabbing his infant daughter with an ice pick. In order to relieve himself of his dark desires, Reed hires an escort to kill but when the equally-unhinged Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) shows up to his hotel room with nefarious plans of her own, Reed realizes he’s in for a night full of surprises.
As a horror movie, Piercing falls flat for several reasons, mainly due to its lackluster finale, however it would also do this film justice to call it a twisted rom-com between two heavy-hitter indie actors. While the film is intended to be a two-hander, it really belongs to Abbott who delivers yet another uniquely endearing and terrifying performance as Reed. There is so much going on behind his big, brown eyes that compels a certain sympathy for his actions. Of course, the film provides plenty of backstory for Reed—we meet a plethora of people from his past who have contributed to his need to kill. Though Reed’s history could have used a little more explanation, Abbott fills his performance with enough nuance and nervous ticks that properly convey the dichotomy that exists within him; he is damaged by events from his past, thus his impulse to kill, but his moral compass has prevented him from ever going through with it…until now. He’s not too much of a pushover yet his growing panic as Jackie reveals her plans for him is evident. At the same time, there is a sense that he is excited by some of her twisted propositions, and he participates in her games by suggesting some of his own.
Wasikowska, on the other hand, is solid as usual as Jackie but the character is severely underdeveloped and one-dimensional. We never get a reason for why Jackie is the way she is, we are just supposed to believe she is crazy. Unlike Reed, Jackie doesn’t seem to have a purpose for her manic behaviour, aside from her excessive pill-popping, and the lack of exploration into her background make it difficult to root for her. Played by the wrong actress, Jackie could have come across as a caricature, but the formidable Wasikowska excels at infusing her with spirit and personality. There is a wounded bird quality to Jackie, emphasized by Wasikowska’s lingering looks, and she becomes reliant on Reed. However, in the moments when Reed has the upper hand, Jackie flutters around her apartment like a bird trapped in a cage, never giving up on escaping. She may be damaged and cornered, but she doesn’t stop fighting and this type of resilience could only be pulled off by the likes of Wasikowska, who is used to playing women who first appear meek but can actually fend and fight for themselves.
Abbott and Wasikowska prove to be an excellent on-screen pair and they play off each other well, almost like a dance. As Jackie and Reed move from one location to the next, the power continually shifting between them, they are at once terrified of and fascinated by each other. They are each trying to anticipate the other’s next move out of fear they will be killed if they don’t, but they are also intrigued by what the other suggests they should do next and seemingly enjoy the chess match that unfolds between them.
Piercing is riddled with suspense and precision, with every shot adding to the growing tension between the characters. The viewer is left constantly wondering which of the two will actually go through with their intended plans, but the film ends rather abruptly without much of the shock and gore promised earlier. After over an hour spent with Jackie and Reed, I wanted more from them.
Despite its missteps, Piercing has a lot going for it. The film is highly composed and colourful, making it the complete opposite to the black-and-white fluidity of Pesce’s debut film The Eyes of My Mother. We feel the stiffness and constraint in Reed’s robot-like movements, and the meticulous design of Jackie’s apartment only adds to her entrapment. Then there’s the oftentimes uplifting score, which provides a playfulness to the bloody action on-screen. There’s also a subtle comedic tone, an interesting choice on Pesce’s part, as it offsets the severity of what the characters are doing to each other. Abbott and Wasikowska deliver each witty line to perfection—impressive for two actors we’re used to seeing in dramas.
Piercing certainly isn’t for everyone and it doesn’t exactly hit the mark it promises to smash in the first few minutes, but it has a lot going for it despite that. Horror fans who are looking for something lighthearted and stylized, with strong performances from two powerhouse indie actors, shouldn’t miss out on seeing this one.
By Alexandra Colatosti
Alexandra Colatosti is a freelance writer based in Montreal. She will be graduating with a degree in Journalism and Film Studies at Concordia University in late 2018. She loves all kinds of film, especially horror and sci-fi. She also enjoys the classics but finds it hard to watch them on any old screen. Her favourite directors are Michelangelo Antonioni, John Cassavetes and Paul Thomas Anderson. Some of her most beloved films include A Woman Under the Influence, Metropolitan, La Dolce Vita and Dazed and Confused. You can find her ranting and raving about movies, among other things, onTwitter or check out some of her other work here.