Mia Wasikowska continues to be an acting powerhouse, often outshining the films she stars in. Whether it be Tim Burton’s God awful Alice in Wonderland films, or Guillermo del Toro’s messy gothic horror Crimson Peak (2015). Given the right character and material, Wasikowska can almost disappear into the role, as seen in Stoker (2013), which remains a somewhat underrated and underappreciated film.
Wasikoswka’s performance in Piercing holds the film together, and what could have been a forgettable film becomes something mysterious and absorbing to watch. Piercing is the kind of film you stumble upon late at night, with the wind howling outside and with the TV as your only source of company. It’s a deeply disturbing and twisted film, that starts off in a depraved manner and escalates as it’s narrative unfolds.
Based on the cult novel from Ryū Murakami (who explores themes of disillusion and sordidness in his novels, his most famous being Audition), Piercing begins with a man standing over a baby’s crib with an ice pick in his hand. This man is Reed (played by a very charismatic Christopher Abbott) who is being consumed by the need to kill someone. Obviously, he can’t kill his child, or his doting wife (Laia Costa), so he makes the decision to kill an unsuspecting hooker in a hotel room.
Reed takes his time to prepare the scene of the murder, acting out the incident in a great scene, which is far more graphic than any actual violence we see depicted on the screen. The excellent use of sound (we hear various squelching, gargling, sawing sounds) force our imagination to fill in the blanks. The blend of black comedy and horror is very reminiscent of Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), and Abbott does a very good Patrick Bateman impression.
His would-be-victim arrives, but Jackie (Wasikowska) has her own dark side, and it is clear that Reed has met his match. As the night unfolds, it soon becomes a twisted cat and mouse game where the two lost souls must somehow out smart each other. Jackie is unpredictable in her behaviour, and as a result Reed is unsure whether she’s suicidal, or unaware of his motives. Aside from a few minor characters that Jackie and Reed interact with, this is very much their show and the each interaction between the two is like watching an elegant game of chess.
This is a film that cinephiles can appreciate. It is clear that writer and director Nicolas Pesce draws on a lot of influences. From Japanese horror, to Hitchcock, and to the works of Dario Argento and Italian sub-genre giallo. However, he has his own auteur style which shines through, and this feels like the work of someone who understands the history of cinema.
His debut film was the black and white psychological horror/thriller, The Eyes of My Mother (2016), which also drew on a range of cinematic influences. As Pesce discussed in an interview, “I didn’t want to make something that felt like, you know, a J-horror movie or a pink movie, I wanted to do it in my own way.” It is worth noting that he is directing a reboot of J-horror classic, The Grudge (so it’ll be interesting to see how that film turns out).
Piercing feels like a film from another place, another time. And, this is what makes it so unique, and intriguing. This is a film which isn’t set in our own reality; the credit sequence features shots of miniature buildings, in a city that is a blend of New York meets Tokyo. And, we can see that a great level of care and attention has been paid to the set design and costume, which helps give an insight into the minds of our two main characters.
There’s some creative use of split screen which also helps to show the split psyche of the characters too. It is also work mentioning Zack Galler’s slick cinematography, with some brilliant use of high angle shots and extreme close-ups which help to heighten our anxiety.
Piercing gets under your skin in a way that leaves you winching when you recall certain scenes (tin-openers have never been so deadly). And long after the film has finished, it is hard to shake off the feeling of unease. Too often contemporary horror films seem to want to shock the viewer with jump scares, but Pesce understands that horror works best when it is somewhat unpredictable and the audience is left to fill in the blanks.
Piercing may not be the film for everyone, (the violence and tone may offend some), but it is worth seeking out if you’re a fan of late 70s/early 80s horror. Stylish, darkly funny, and truly depraved, Piercing is the definition of a cult classic.