Director Nicolas Pesce follows up his on fantastic directorial debut, The Eyes of My Mother, with Piercing. For his sophomore effort, Pesce plays with genres, mixing some old-school Giallo thriller with dark comedy. Though he debuted Piercing at Sundance over a year ago, it’s taken this long for Pesce’s latest movie to hit most VOD-streaming platforms.
Reed kisses his wife and infant daughter goodbye before leaving for a work trip. But Reed’s hotel stay isn’t for business. As he carefully lays out the contents of his bag – chloroform, rope, and an ice pick – Reed’s true intentions becomes horrifyingly clear. Each step of his plan is meticulously rehearsed before he calls an escort service. But when call girl Jackie arrives, Reed’s carefully laid out plans are turned upside down.
Piercing a Stylish Homage to 1970’s Italian Thrillers
Fans of the 1970’s Italian Giallo or ‘sexploitation’ thrillers will appreciate Piercing. Director Nicolas Pesce’s previous directorial credit was the beautifully haunting The Eyes of My Mother. Not surprsingy then, Piercing is a stylish and slickly edited thriller. From its title credit sequence to the overall atmosphere, Pesce evokes a distinct time period and style of filmmaking. In addition, cinematographer Zack Galler gives the movie both a lush quality and sense of flair with tight close-ups, split screens, and deceptive angles. Though the movie is stylish, it’s not cluttered with too much spilling onto the screen.
… Pesce mostly balances out the ‘cat and mouse’ narrative with the story’s dark humour
In addition, Pesce mostly balances out the ‘cat and mouse’ narrative with the story’s dark humour. Think American Psycho, but less provocative. Piercing isn’t a horror movie, and Pesces doesn’t dole out excessive violence. But what violence is present shocks. Expect more than one instance where Pesce catches you off-guard. Fantasy and reality are also seamlessly blended together. For instance, Reed’s inner monologue and thoughts increasingly bleed into the narrative, demanding close attention.
A Twisting Story Missing Its Subtext
Where Piercing truly excels is in its tops-turvy approach to what could have been a conventional movie. The ‘predator becoming the prey’ story isn’t entirely unfamiliar, but Piercing is so much more than its premise. Based on Ryu Murakami’s novel, Piercing is a morally ambiguous movie. In contrast to other recent thrillers, such as All Light Will End, Piercing ‘shows’, rather than ‘tells’, leaving its characters’ motivations murky. As a storyteller, Pesce would rather the audiences draw their own inferences about what they’re seeing and why it’s happening. Pesce offers enough to allow us to piece together what fuels Reed’s violent psychosexual urges. But call-girl Jackie largely remains a mystery. Her fetishistic kinks and motivations push things in interesting directions. The result is a thriller that raptly holds your attention from start to finish.
In the #MeToo era, Pesce could have made some potentially interesting comments on the subject
Perhaps where Pesce’s dark comedy falters is its meaning, or lack thereof. The Eyes of My Mother is a nightmarish thriller, but doesn’t seem to really be about anything beyond its basic story. Similarly, some critics may accuse Piercing of being superficial. Its dark story doesn’t just flirt with kinks and fetishes. Somewhere beneath the surface of its ‘cat and mouse’ narrative, Piercing feels like it wants to touch on issues of consent. In the #MeToo era, Pesce could have made some potentially interesting comments on the subject. Instead, Piercing is content to indulge in its stylish twists and turns.
Performances as Idiosyncratic As Its Characters
By and large, Piercing is a two-person show. Fortunately, Mia Wasikowska and Christopher Abbott deliver strong, idiosyncratic performances worthy of their interesting characters. As the neurotic ‘Reed’, Abbott is all bottled-up intensity. He completely convinces as a man hovering dangerously close to exploding. Yet as good as Abbott is in Piercing, Wasikowska arguably steals the show. Given a character that is ambiguous and defined by contradictions, Wasikowska steams full ahead with a layered performance. You may never know what her character is really thinking, but Wasikowska makes sure you won’t stop trying.
Piercing Offers More Than a Nostalgic Trip Down Giallo Lane
Some viewers may find the ending frustrating. No spoilers here. Certainly, Piercing doesn’t conform to any set of expectations. But this is what makes Pesce’s sophomore effort so good. While Piercing embraces its Giallo thriller aesthetics, the movie isn’t content to just homage a subgenre. With his second movie, Pesce offers fans of The Grudge some hope for the upcoming remake that he’s helming.