An aspiring serial killer meticulously plots his first premeditated murder, making detailed notes and plans for the killing and dismemberment of a prostitute, and yet when his would-be victim shows up at his hotel room door, Piercing turns into … a romantic comedy? That’s the entertainingly perverse premise behind the stylish second feature from The Eyes of My Mother writer-director Nicolas Pesce, who once again delivers a unique, mesmerizing and confounding twist on the horror genre. While Eyes was shot in striking high-contrast black and white, Piercing is full of vibrant, often artificial colors, proudly flaunting its self-conscious giallo influences.
The neo-giallo has become something of its own subgenre in recent years, thanks to movies like Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, Yann Gonzalez’s Knife + Heart and the works of Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet (Amer, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, Let the Corpses Tan). Pesce incorporates large chunks of the original scores from giallo classics like Tenebre and Deep Red, and the movie’s plot has the hallucinatory, dream-logic quality of many giallos. But Pesce’s visual style here is at least as indebted to Brian De Palma, with his use of split screens and deep focus, and the deliberately fake-looking sets (including a cityscape constructed entirely out of miniatures) recall the general aesthetic of 1970s B-movies.
Piercing is based on a 1994 novel by Japanese author Ryū Murakami, who also wrote the source material for Takashi Miike’s Audition, and the movie has some of the same nasty unpredictability of that cult horror favorite. Reed (Christopher Abbott) seems like a stable family man at first, although he’s introduced holding an ice pick just a little too close to his newborn child. He packs up his briefcase, bids his wife (Laia Costa) and child goodbye and heads out on what he says is a trip to a work conference. Instead, Reed checks into a fancy hotel, where he begins preparations for his planned encounter with a prostitute. He tests out chloroform on himself to see how long it will last, and he mimes his entire murder process in a darkly funny scene complete with gruesome sound effects.
But a phone call from the escort agency puts his carefully laid plans in doubt. His chosen victim (er, companion) isn’t available, and so the agency instead sends Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), who puts him off with her frank talk of bondage, then excuses herself to take a shower, where Reed discovers her stabbing herself in the leg with a pair of scissors. What follows is a sort of cat-and-mouse game of “who’s crazier?” as the characters test each other’s limits and call each other’s bluffs on acts that are equal parts sex and violence.
Abbott and Wasikowska maintain the playful, off-kilter dynamic between Reed and Jackie the entire time, never entirely revealing how much each knows about the other’s motives, and Pesce mostly balances the tone effectively, placing moments of dry humor against startlingly graphic violence. He strips away almost all of the back story and inner thought processes from Murakami’s novel, focusing on the moment-to-moment interactions between these sick but somehow likable weirdos. All the way through the abrupt, cheeky final line, the audience is rooting equally for the main characters to kill each other and to fall in love.