The Pitch: The unnaturally fastidious Reed (Christopher Abbott) sets off for a business trip, liberated by the time away from his seemingly humdrum life. After calling home to his wife Mona (Laia Costa) to say good night, he begins to set up for his real plans: an evening of slow, excruciating torture until death. But when his appointment with a pre-screened escort falls through due to his over-eagerness to get started, he agrees to have the first woman available sent to his hotel. When Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) arrives, Reed figures that he can get things right back on schedule, but from the second she passes through the doorway, the power dynamic has shifted. Jackie has more questions for Reed than he’s interested in answering. She wants to have dinner before they jump straight to the tying up. And before long, Reed begins to suspect that Jackie is more than she appears to be.
Retromasochism: Writer-director Nicolas Pesce‘s 2016 feature debut The Eyes of My Mother captured the pathology of a soft-spoken serial killer in excruciating real time, lingering over the ways in which dead-eyed predators treat the crescendo leading up to a murder as its own kind of pleasure. Some of Piercing‘s early scenes recall that same motif, Abbott burying all traces of affect beneath Reed’s nearly inhuman stare. Yet Reed is all too human, all too mortal and male in the ways mortal men so often are. He’s greedy. He’s hungry. He’s prone to surrendering to his most reckless impulses without all that much prodding. And perhaps most crucially, he treats his soon-to-be victim as nothing more than a fawn in headlights, his lamb to lead to slaughter, because she’s a woman.
In its fleet 75 minutes, Piercing plays with antiquated notions of desire and gender role, sinks its teeth into the assumptions so often underlying stories based around “handsome male murderer tortures a woman” concepts, and manages to marry its anachronistic ’70s fetish aesthetics with a distinctly modern sense of genre unease. It’s quite the accomplishment for Pesce, but it’s arguably an even bigger one for its leads. If Abbott begins as a milquetoast predator in the Patrick Bateman mode, Wasikowska lends the first act so much of its key inscrutability as a woman who’s clearly not the seeming innocent Reed hired, but may carry uniquely perverse burdens of her own. Through the exchanges of power that follow, both subtle and decidedly otherwise, the duo elevate Piercing well above its lurid setup.
Desire, In Its Many Forms: Central to Piercing‘s winding two-hander about the limitations of consent, lust, and fear is the way in which Pesce consistently keeps the pendulum swinging. Virtually every line drips with entendre, and as the film begins to flirt more and more with outright surrealism, a sense of disorientation emerges that separates the film from its visible influences. Pesce wears his love for Argento and De Palma on his sleeve pretty transparently throughout Piercing, marrying the latter’s knack for building drama out of split-screen storytelling and kink with the former’s Grand Guignol operatics. (It also doesn’t hurt that Pesce draws on sounds from Goblin and Bruno Nicolai throughout.)
There’s a decadence to Piercing that would exist way further at odds with its grisly subject matter if Abbott and Wasikowska didn’t each have a pitch-perfect ear for Pesce’s storytelling, playing each scene with a perfectly calibrated blend of vampish excess and honest-to-God terror. Once that balance takes hold, however, Pesce’s giallo nostalgia pulls the film into places both hideous and genuinely sexy. It’s a piece of phenomenally economical filmmaking in which every aspect seems to be negotiating the same razor-thin line between camp, horror, and eroticism, and one which rarely missteps.
The Verdict: “It’s okay to make a mess.” Throughout Piercing, it’s never clear who’s getting played, at least except for the audience. Those with the stomach for what Pesce and his stars have to offer will likely give over to the rush of it, as the film plays fast and loose with expectations at every turn. A dangling ice pick is shot with the same level of fetishism as a body clad in silken lingerie. A mutual moment of surrender turns into a horrorshow with a single well-deployed line of dialogue. A phone call, innocuous on its face, suggests multitudes about everything we’ve already scene and dread having to see still. It’s the simplest premise in the world, and one as old as time: two strangers meet in a room for sex, but really, to take what they want from the other. Just trust that Piercing takes that idea about as far as it can go.
Where’s It Playing? Limited theaters beginning February 1st, as well as on-demand rental.