By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Starring Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, & Laia Costa
Written & Directed by Nicolas Pesce
Based on the novel by Ryû Murakami
Nicolas Pesce first film, 2016’s THE EYES OF MY MOTHER was like a breath of fresh air to horror. It showed that eloquence in filmmaking need not avoid brutality. The black and white beauty shocked audiences with its high brow gore and torture, and made Pesce the next director to watch out for. PIERCING, his sophomore feature, has a similar gloss of cinematic lustre over the dripping blood and guts, and features many of the same themes as THE EYES OF MY MOTHER. But make no mistake, it is a masterpiece unto itself.
Based on the novel by Ryû Murakami, PIERCING is a story of a man planning a murder. Reed (Christopher Abbott) has a beautiful wife and a small, chubby baby at home. He is haunted by his desires, which are violent and sexual, and meticulously plans to head into the city to kill a sex worker to exercise these impulses. He is a careful, but impatient man, who has planned every single last detail of the kill. When the unsuspecting woman arrives at his hotel room and has certain impulses of her own, Reed struggles to regroup. Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) is not shy about her job, or about the sadomasochism Reed proposes, but she is also not the kind of woman who is able to leave her personal baggage out of a professional encounter. As the night begins to spin out of control, Reed and Jackie form a bond and try to get through it together.
Just as THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is a staunchly rural film, PIERCING is visually defined by its urban location. The tall buildings and infinite windows bookend the film and add to the claustrophobic setting. In the hotel, Reed is reminded that there is always someone nearby listening, and that he is never truly alone there.
The film’s artistic design is also one of contrast. The interior spaces (and the film is almost entirely indoors) are at odds with themselves. Every room is dark, even though they have bright lights. There are colors everywhere, and yet the tone always feels heavy. Each and every set conveys a sense of power, and somehow convinces us we are powerless. The fundamentally unsettling sensation sets the expectation of unease, which is met by both Reed’s and Jackie’s behaviour throughout the night.
Another similarity to THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is PIERCING’s preoccupation with body horror. This is not to say that there are not elements of psychological mischief as well, but much of the source of the horror in the film is rooted in the fact that bodies are gross and can be the source of unimaginable pleasure and pain. Add in the ongoing concern over consent, and it is clear how PIERCING’s overt discussion of bondange and sexual power play spread beyond the film’s text and into the subtext.
Less lyric than THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, PIERCING moves swiftly and is over before you know it. Both Abbott and Wasikowska play their characters as if they are hiding something, which they certainly are, which keeps the quickly moving film hurtling forward at all times. This pace is never at the expense of its artistic mastery, but it does keep everything moving along.
PIERCING is the rare second film from a new director which rivals its predecessor. The film is in conversation with Pesce’s previous work, and continues his legacy as a new horror maestro in the making. Keep it up, sir.