Written by Nicolas Pesce
Directed by Nicolas Pesce
Sundance audiences were introduced to a essential new voice in the form of Nicolas Pesce, who debuted his astounding The Eyes of My Mother in 2016. That slow-burn, stylistically brutal indie, made for under $50,000, cemented Pesce as a horror director to watch. It seems like a dream, then, that he would return to the festival with a bigger project, adapted from Ryu Murakami’s cult classic Piercing. Though the finished film may not live up to its premise, Pesce delivers his gnarly narrative with a suitable amount of style – along with a poisonous dose of humor.
The chillingly charming Christopher Abbott plays Reed, a young husband and father who needs to kill someone in order to rid himself of aberrant thoughts. Leaving his wife and child under the pretense of a business trip, he meticulously plans to hire a prostitute, stab her, and dispose of the body. What he doesn’t know is that his intended victim – played by genre queen Mia Wasikowska in her strangest role since Maps to the Stars – might be just as unhinged as he is.
With the source material in mind, Pesce doesn’t have to work hard to set the stage for his back-and-forth narrative of increasing derangement. Abbott is a perfect choice for the nervous psychopath, complete with a puppy-dog face and eerily dark eyes. Wasikowska has never been more unsettling, and her instability gives the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope a new nightmarish meaning. Their nervous, unspoken interactions are unpredictable and convincing; though Pesce fails to generate the tension that should be inherent in scenes between a murderer and his unaware victim.
The film’s true star is its design. Production designer Alan Lampert creates a series of rooms that are at once retro and futuristic, along with a series of miniature cityscapes right out of a 1980’s Kafka. Cinematographer Zack Gallner shoots these colorful but uncanny environments in a frank manner, which generates a sense of sterility. Paired with some deliciously realistic prosthetics, the film always looks fantastic. In its best moments, the surroundings and characters interact in surreal, brutal ways – there’s a sequence over halfway through that features some of the most enjoyably bizarre set pieces in recent cinema.
In spite of this, Pesce doesn’t pull off his stylistic intention in a way that communicates a well-rounded story. The source material feels skimmed merely for its gruesome premise, while the atmosphere tugs between stark surrealism and pulpy giallo notes, made more confusing by the sampling of classic Italian film scores. When considering the evocative, deliberate crafting of his debut, it seems a shame that Pesce didn’t take the same detailed approach. The film appears to follow the novel closely, however, and the combination of design and casting is hard to dismiss altogether. Its combination of awkward romantic comedy, contained thriller, and genuine body horror has all the ingredients of a midnight masterpiece. One just wishes Pesce would have taken everything a step further – deeper, crazier, nastier. Considering the setup, he could, and should, have done so much more.
Even if Piercing doesn’t live up to its potential, its visceral imagery is awfully effective, and the film momentarily captivates through uncanny design and a pitch-perfect cast. Pesce remains a director to watch, particularly if he finds stronger source material next time; and his second film provides enough macabre entertainment to hold us over until that happens.
Nicolas Pesce doesn’t quite stick the narrative landing, but his game cast, stellar design and viscerally powerful direction make Piercing worth seeing.