The 1994 novel Piercing by Ryu Murakami remains one of my favorite stories. It’s a tense, lurid, and disturbing tale. Its mechanics are straightforward enough as a sort of bizarre game of cat-and-mouse where the main character and the woman he wishes to kill misread each other’s words and actions due to their own childhood trauma and are tangled closer and closer as they’re pulled to a violent end. Reading it, I always thought the beats of the story felt like something Hitchcock would make, a simple but unnerving thriller.
In Nicolas Pesce’s adaptation of the book, he leans more on Argento than Hitchcock, but the story is no less riveting.
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Release Date: February 1, 2019
The soundtrack immediately sets the nostalgic style of the film. You’ll be peppered with songs from Italian horror soundtracks of the 70’s and 80’s (including the theme to Tenebre) along with other pieces that would feel at home in Tarintino’s work. They strike the right tone matched with slick opening credits and panning close-ups of monolithic apartment buildings. It looks good, sounds good, and carries a supernatural feeling that Piercing continues to build throughout its runtime.
This might be a case of style over substance for some, and I can’t argue that the stripped-down narrative which only hints at anyone’s backstory and motivation while whiplashing them from one moment of strange horror to the next may leave some wanting more meat to chew. Given Pesce’s interest in the giallo, I’d say the ample doses of stylish terror with only scraps to connect them better captures that feeling, and he succeeds in crafting a stronger homage to that genre than even Argento has been able to do for the past 15 years (Not to say that Dracula 3D isn’t a blast).
For what there is of a plot, we have Reed (Christopher Abbott) holding his baby daughter one night. He clenches an ice pick in his fist but can’t bring himself to slam it into the infant’s stomach. In a demonic voice, the baby tells him that he knows what he has to do. So, off he goes on a supposed business trip in which he plans and prepares to bring an S&M prostitute to his hotel room, tie her up, and stab her in the stomach to get the urge out of his system. This, naturally, doesn’t go as planned. Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), the prostitute, has a bathroom breakdown that ends with a very bloody pair of scissors. Now, Reed has to take her from the hotel room and figure out how to handle her while confronting the fact that she may know what he’s up to.
Much like most giallo fare, Piercing‘s main focus is on the intersection between violence and sexuality. There’s a perverse mix of BDSM, bloodshed, and trauma lurking in Reed’s past, which Jackie handily adds to.
Wasikowska offers a psychosexual glimpse into Jackie. Whether she sells her sexuality, fawns over Reed in a sort of malformed attachment, or fantasizes about violence and mutilation she carries an equally carefree and comforting tone that blends each side into a complete human who’s instantly fragile and dangerous as soon as she witnesses something that doesn’t match the fantasy she’s built. What the fantasy is exactly and why she’s come to think that way is left a mystery. I worry that dropping the novel’s context for her personality will leave her less sympathetic and more just another crazy woman in a horror movie.
Reed at least is fleshed out in a phantasmagoria of batshit, nasty, gruesome, and claustrophobic hallucinations which offer a general structure to his desire. It grounds him as more than just a dude who wants to stab a woman, and it would have been nice to see at least a sliver of that with Jackie. I felt a step too detached from her too often.
Still, Pesce captures a grimy fever dream of sex and stabbing in which no one leaves without a puncture dribbling somewhere on their bodies. It drips retro style and oozes surreal horror visuals that leads to a climax with fluids to spare. Thought it might have benefited from some additional characterization, I have no doubt Piercing will leave any deviant satisfied.