Have you ever planned out a conversation in your head, just for it to go completely off the rails when it happens? No matter how terrible things have gone for you, Reed (Christopher Abbott) probably has it worse. Instead of a conversation, he has a murder mapped out. With all intricately designed plans, one wrong step can be the catalyst for catastrophe, and in Piercing, that catalyst is prostitute-turned-victim Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) who instigates a blood-splattered catastrophe with equal amounts of stabbing and sexual tension. A psychosexual romp gone wrong (or right depending on how kinky you are), Nicolas Pesce’s follow-up to The Eyes of My Mother is a bold leap from his haunting debut that doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Reed is just your typical guy: he has that perfect white picket fence life, as well as a deeply buried desire to murder his infant child. When we first see Reed, he’s holding an ice pick dangerously close to his baby’s face. In other words, he’s an average bloke. In an attempt to exorcise his worrisome demons, he shacks up in a hotel room for the night with a plan to murder a random woman. He’s got it all planned out, right down to the very second, written in excruciating detail in his how-to-murder handbook. Tie her up, knock her out with chloroform, stab her, and amputate. Easy. Mia Wasikowska’s Jackie, the call girl unwittingly planted in a murder plot, has some sadistic fetishes of her own, and a peculiar battle for power comes into play.
The film looks to emulate the sadomasochist black comedies – American Psycho and The Voices come to mind – that people secretly revel in. The kind of film where you grimace at the violence then stifle an awkward giggle, scolding at yourself for taking delight in something so sinister. The film isn’t as funny as it is unbearable, in the sense that you squirm at every wound inflicted, but don’t dare to look away. If nothing else, Piercing has an assured sense of style. From the retro title sequence to the eccentric set design, the film feels like something out of the ’70s but also otherworldly. But in the end, it comes across as rather empty.
Wasikowska and Abbott make for a dynamic pair of clashing opponents. The former is confident and demented, while the latter is awkward and also demented. It’s intriguing to watch their constantly shifting power dynamic, as their relationship changes from killer/victim to evenly-matched psychopaths scrambling to stab the other first. There’s also an unspoken sexual tension as if this is a budding S&M relationship. Piercing is like watching a car crash in slow motion, the tension climbing up at a snail’s pace as you wait for the vehicles to collide. That being said, the ending (which I won’t spoil) is as fascinating as it is frustrating. When you’ve been thrown into sadistic mayhem for 80 minutes, the least they could do is let us see the damn cars crash.