What to make of Piercing? The kinky psychological thriller, about an anxious would-be murderer and his unwieldy victim, certainly boasts an impressive pedigree. It's directed by Nicolas Pesce, who made 2016's The Eyes of My Mother, an assured and uncompromising movie about a traumatized, isolated young woman who works through her grief and loneliness in atrocious ways. It's based on a 1994 novel by Ryû Murakami, who also provided the source material for Takashi Miike's Audition, another effectively unsettling movie about a young woman committing heinous acts that's gleefully nihilistic in its depiction of male / female relationships and power dynamics. It stars Mia Wasikowska, a fine, understated actress who can play a beloved literary heroine like Jane Eyre with intelligence and conviction, and can just as easily imbue a budding serial killer or an impulsive teen vampire with those same qualities. How did this combination of bold, provocative talent manage to produce a movie as tepid and underwhelming as Piercing?
Reed (a twitchy Christopher Abbott), away from home for a weekend "business" trip, checks into a hotel and hires a prostitute, intending to murder the unsuspecting woman when she arrives at his room. Reed's never done anything like this before, though, so he's extremely anxious about committing the act itself. After he settles in at the hotel he studiously play acts his impending crime, stabbing and slicing at the air, taking into account all the possible outcomes, considering all the scenarios. He'll suggest they experiment with S&M, giving him an excuse to tie his victim up. Then he'll produce an ice pick and stab her to death. What if she struggles or screams once she figures out what he's planning? He'll have to muffle the sound. He'll need a change of clothes, cause there'll be a lot of blood. He'll have to make sure to clean up after himself very carefully. The more time the movie spends with Reed, the more inept he seems to be. Maybe an aspiring murderer with this level of performance anxiety should find another way to exorcise his demons and get his kicks?
Enter Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), Reed's would be victim, who is introduced into the story not when she shows up at the hotel, but at her apartment, before she gets the call to go to Reed's room. By introducing her this way, off work, passed out on her bed in a top and granny panties, she's presented as a character in her own right. She's more than a stylized glamazombie dropped into the narrative to satisfy the male lead's bloodlust or bring about his demise: This is her story, too! And once Jackie and Reed meet and begin to interact the focus and intention of the film starts to splinter. It's a deadly game of cat and mouse where the roles constantly shift, but it's also a deranged seduction story. And every time Reed's uncertain predator loses the upper hand to his volatile, unpredictable prey, it feels less like a fight for survival and increasingly like a type of foreplay between two demented individuals who may have found what they needed (but didn't really know what they were looking for) in one another.
Unfortunately, neither character is fleshed-out enough to make a love story between them compelling or palatable. Reed is neurotic and deranged in a non-specific way, driven by impulses he doesn't seem to understand any better than the viewer does, and Jackie is essentially reduced to a broken-mirror version of the manic pixie dream girl, devoting her time and energy to trying to suss out what the "damaged" male protagonist needs so she can be that for him. Wasikowska, usually so dependable, is wasted here. Like her character, she tries every approach, there just isn't anything substantial for her to work with, so she's limited in what she can actually accomplish. Jackie's erratic, inscrutable actions don't exist to illuminate her character's thoughts, feelings or motivations; they're a plot device designed to drive the story from one fucked-up destination to the next.
When Jackie first arrives at the hotel, as she's making her way to Reed's room, there's a split screen shot (the first of many) and the soundtrack starts blasting Goblin's Profondo Rosso. "This one is trying awfully hard," I thought to myself. Piercing certainly wears its giallo aspirations on its sleeve, and if its foundation had been a little sturdier, a well-placed visual or musical homage could have worked to its advantage. But because the original content the film offers is so lukewarm the homage feels like a cheat, a shortcut meant to evoke a reaction from a crowd who recognizes those beats from dePalma, Argento, even Tarantino. And since they don't feel earned, these flourishes disrupt the story far more than they enhance it.
Piercing is a semi-coherent assortment of rough character outlines and imagery that feels tiresome when it should be titillating, with one or two compelling and disconcerting moments thrown in to keep you hoping that it's all going somewhere interesting. At 81 minutes it might have benefitted from a longer run-time, but, short as it is, the movie still manages to overstay its welcome, because it just spins its wheels, uncertain of exactly where it wants to go or how it wants to get there. As a viewer I had absolutely no idea how to react to what I was seeing, or if I was meant to react at all. I wanted to feel something while I watched, even if it was something entirely unpleasant. I mostly felt nothing, and just when I thought the story might be getting around to having some sort of purpose or intention, the closing credits started to roll.
Piercing did, finally, manage to offend me, though. Not because it traffics in taboo subject matter, but because its handling of that subject matter is so cavalier, and pales in comparison to the work of other filmmakers who have explored dark sexual urges and proclivities with far more thoughtfulness and empathy. It would be a tall order, an impossible one, perhaps, to present the motivations at the heart of this story in a way that could normalize them, or even make them relatable, but Piercing's conclusion seems to suggest that this was the movie's intention. And if it was then it fell terribly short, owing to a tone that lacks any real sensitivity towards the characters or their impulses, opting instead to construct an inscrutable narrative mostly out of garden variety kink and gore-soaked imagery.
Maybe this wasn't Pesce's intention at all, though. Maybe he just wanted to make a raunchy exploitation flick. If that's the case, Piercing still comes up short for me, because it never pushes the boundaries of extreme cinema enough to be truly shocking or surprising. It has so much potential, it just can't seem to go far enough in any direction to deliver a unique or satisfying experience of any sort. There are some intriguing ideas knocking around in Piercing and I would like to have seen them more fully explored. Ultimately this movie feels undercooked, immature, and callous. It doesn't seem to care. So why should we?