The macabre, twistedly perverse retro answer to “Fifty Shades of Grey” with hints of 2000’s “American Psycho” and 2017’s “Phantom Thread,” “Piercing” is the sophomore effort of writer-director Nicolas Pesce, whose meticulously crafted, unforgivingly grim “The Eyes of My Mother” was a very assured debut. While that film announced a talented filmmaker right out of the gate with an auteur’s nerve, his follow-up still avoids the infamous sophomore slump by taking on a project that he made exactly the way he wanted to make it and that won’t be for everyone. Based on the novel of the same name by Ryū Murakami (who also wrote the novel that was adapted into 1999’s grisly, unsettling shocker “Audition”), “Piercing” is a pitch-perfect exercise in tone, style, and performance that doesn’t quite hang together as a complete story, but for 81 minutes, it never wears out its welcome as a lurid, demented waltz.
Resisting the urge to take an ice pick to his baby daughter while his wife (Laia Costa) sleeps, Reed (Christopher Abbott) leaves on “business,” but he’s really planning the perfect murder that he needs to get out of his system before taking on fatherhood. Once in his hotel room, Reed tests out chloroform and runs through his murder process before calling an escort service and carrying out his best-laid plans. An hour later, prostitute Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) walks in, and she’s not what Reed expected once he finds Jackie stabbing her thigh with a pair of scissors in the bathroom. Is Jackie more aware than she lets on and consenting to Reed’s plans, or does she have a plan of her own? Who is more mentally unstable, or are they each other’s soul mate?
“Piercing” could be the closest writer-director Nicolas Pesce might ever get to making a romantic comedy, where kink and murder make for fine bedfellows. With Reed and Jackie, the film flips the roles of predator and prey in a sadistic power play that keeps ratcheting up the often wince-inducing tension and a deviant sense of humor. If “The Eyes of My Mother” was Pesce’s Hitchcock film, albeit with more black-and-white blood, then “Piercing” is his Argento film. From the word go, the film is precisely, stylishly designed like a homage to giallo films from the 1970s, complete with split screens, urban high-rise miniatures, and Goblin’s magnificent original scores from Dario Argento’s “Deep Red” and “Tenebre” to create a heightened reality. Since the story predominantly takes place within two interior locations, it gives Pesce the opportunity to bring much unexpected specificity to every detail in the production design, particularly Jackie’s minimalistic but striking self-decorated apartment.
Aside from Laia Costa as Reed's wife, as well as Reed’s mother (Maria Dizzia) and a girl (Olivia Bond) from Reed’s past who both pop up in hallucinatory flashbacks, “Piercing” is largely a two-hander between two proverbial cats who take turns being the mouse. Christopher Abbott (2017's "It Comes at Night") is an expert internal performer, and as Reed, he effectively conveys a cold, calculating apathy behind that baby face. It is revealed that Reed has acted upon his impulses in the past, but his ability can’t quite equal his desire when he finally meets his match. In an amusing moment of gallows humor, Abbott gets to pantomime-rehearse his murder and cleanup of the dismembered body, and his murmurs and the disgusting sound effects do all the talking. As the unpredictable Jackie, Mia Wasikowska (2015's "Crimson Peak") is fearless and sprightly, keeping the viewer guessing what her next move will be and coloring her quirky proclivities with a tortured sense of self-loathing. Like an oddball couple made for each other, Abbott and Wasikowska’s performances are so in-sync with one another and with Pesce’s darkly playful tone. Even if it ends abruptly on a cheeky punchline of sorts rather than a fully satisfying payoff, “Piercing” is bracingly wicked and weird with two compelling lead performances and plenty of style to burn.