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Piercing Movie Review

Love Hurts

In a genre that's too often populated with cheap scares, mindless violence, and increasingly uninspired reboots, 2016's "The Eyes of My Mother" was a welcome surprise: a laconically-paced horror film that employed black and white photography to maintain an artful distance from its shockingly visceral visuals, and despite keeping much of its bloodletting offscreen nonetheless disturbed unsuspecting audiences in a way that went bone-deep. One had to wonder what first-time director Nicholas Pesce would do as a follow up.

That answer comes with "Piercing," Mr. Pesce's second film, which made the festival rounds last year and is now in limited theaters and available on demand. Based on the psychological thriller by Japanese writer Ryu Murakami, "Piercing" is - well, it's probably best to go to the log line on this one: "A man kisses his wife and baby goodbye and seemingly heads away on business, with a plan to check into a hotel, call an escort service, and kill an unsuspecting prostitute."

New father Reed (Christopher Abbott, "Vox Lux") is finding parenthood unbearably stressful. He's barely containing a strange compulsion to stab his infant daughter with an ice pick, so he conceives the idea of murdering a prostitute as a way to channel his murderous impulses. Under the guise of attending a conference Reed checks into a hotel and carefully rehearses each step of his plan, even up to knocking himself out repeatedly with chloroform in order to get the dose right. Finally he's ready, and makes a call to set up a "date."

Fate leads Reed to Jackie (Mia Wasikowska, "Crimson Peak"), a doe-eyed blonde sylph who arrives at his door, requests a drink, begins the required pantomime of a paid-for seduction, then does something so unexpected that it reframes the pair's entire dynamic. "Piercing" boasts several such shifts; it's a device that succeeds in putting the audience uncomfortably in the middle of Reed and Jackie's odd dance as they size each other up under increasingly bizarre and unexpected circumstances. Mr. Abbott and Ms. Wasikowska seamlessly navigate the power shifts of this psychological tango, and while it is difficult to step back from the circumstances of their situation enough to say that it is enjoyable, there is nonetheless pleasure in watching the two actors play effectively off of each other.

Mr. Pesce stages much of the couple's interaction with bright downlighting that puts them center screen but leaves features partially shadowed and blackness at the edges of the scene, or in such close shots that it's difficult to discern much about their surroundings at all. This works to reinforce the idea that these two are in their own world, for better or for worse. It also makes it impossible to look away when terrible things happen - and oh, they do happen.

Where "The Eyes of My Mother" displayed a calculated reserve, with "Piercing," Mr. Pesce goes for broke. This is a bright, brash, lurid, blackly-comic exploration of the peculiarities of the human psyche, and it will test the limits of some viewers. This experience definitely isn't for everyone. But it is a bold offering from a sure-handed director who trusts his own aesthetic vision, and clearly engenders trust in his actors. If you are ready for a brisk, sharp horror experience that packs a true punch, "Piercing" should be worth your time.



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