'Piercing' Review: A Kinky Tale Of Murder Plans Gone Awry [Sundance]

It's clear from the very beginning of director Nicolas Pesce's Piercing that he wants us on edge. He opens with a shot of a new father Reed (Christopher Abbott) standing over his infant son with an ice pick just inches from the child's face. Reed snaps himself out of what seems like a trance and finishes packing for what he tells his wife (Laia Costa) is a business trip but is, in fact, a carefully planned and well-rehearsed killing of a total stranger, complete with a murder kit that we get to know well over the course of the film.

Based on the popular '90s novel by Ry? Murakami (who also wrote the source novel for Takashi Miike's Audition) and adapted by Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother), Piercing begins as what appears to be a cut-and-dry exploration of the obsessive behavior of a psychopath. But things evolves into something much more alluring and curious as both killer and victim prove to have a shared background of pain and abuse that opens up the possibility that they may become more like kindred spirits or even partners in the game of hurting each other.

The would-be victim here is a wasted prostitute named Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), who finds a way to be both intriguing and unpredictable in a way Reed did not anticipate. Before he summons her from an escort service, Reed unpacks his killing implements and moves through his hotel room, rehearsing every choreographed moment of Jackie's death like it were a modern dance that combines small talk, erasing fingerprints, a relaxing drink, the suggestion of light S&M, knocking her out with chloroform, and stabbing her jugular with the ice pick. Perhaps even more disturbing than that, Reed also practices cutting her body into more manageable pieces in the bathtub, complete with an unnerving sound effects accompaniment.

When Jackie arrives, she presents herself as a loose cannon to Reed, whose buttoned-up demeanor might make American Psycho's Patrick Bateman uncomfortable. And the more she throws off his planning, the more he begins to unravel. She's messy and impossible to control (which may explain why having a newborn in his life may have set him on edge), but she's also powerful, possessing the kind of strength that often comes from a lifetime's worth of fighting back.

It's my understanding that the novel makes this entangled relationship and their damaged pasts more explicit while Peace's reworking only gives us a late-film flashback into Reed's childhood that is both unnecessary and more than a little distracting. In no way a detriment to the movie, the filmmaker seems more fascinating by the power dynamic between Reed and Jackie, which is in almost constant flux. But as each party wrestles—both physically and psychologically—with the other for dominance, the two actually grow closer as they start to understand that shared pain might be their greatest aphrodisiac.

Piercing comes courtesy of the impressive BorderLine Films, a collective founded by Josh Mond, Sean Durkin, and Antonio Campos (all of whom are credited producers), which has spawned such well-received indie hits Martha Marcy May Marlene, James White (also starring Abbott), Christine, and Pesce's The Eyes of My Mother. There seems to have been a concerted effort among these titles to tackle familiar subject in unfamiliar ways, and Piercing is no different. The film braids horror elements with dark humor, trippy visuals (cinematographer Zachary Galler's work here is stunning and inventive), a twisted romance, and an inversion of the traditional and tired stalker/victim motif.

There's never a moment in Piercing where Reed feels more dangerous than Jackie, and that's entirely due to Wasikowska's live-wire performance in which she toys with her would-be captor's expectations. She's an outdoor animal trapped inside with a man attempting to tame the untamable, and he's a man who hates the unpredictable and other things that he can't control. In those moments in the story when Jackie is solidly in control, Reed is in hell. It doesn't help that a certain portion of what Reed sees and experiences might be more a product of his fractured psyche.

There are brief moments when the pair are forced into the outside world and must interact with more stable individuals, but Piercing works best as a two-person study of kinky fetishists left to their own whacked-out devices. With a running time that barely crosses 80 minutes, the film feels like an early draft of something worthy of deeper examination. Anything resembling background about Jackie would have been welcome and helpful in deepening our understanding of her behavior. And while I certainly am a firm proponent that nothing is scarier than the unknown, getting at bit into a character's motivations only makes us care about their fate more. Again, it's a testament to Wasikowska's acting that we have even a passing interest in Jackie's history and mental state.

Abbott continues to provide proof that he is one of the finest actors in his age group, displaying a range of performances in the last few years that makes it a genuine treat to see what he brings to each new part. He seems almost desperate not to repeat himself from role to role, and Reed is a bundle of insecurities wearing an ill-fitting killer's mask.

Despite the dominating presence of a prostitute character, Piercing largely skirts the issue of whether either of these deranged folks is getting turned on by any of this. There's no denying that the line between sex and violence is blurred for these people, almost beyond distinction, but Pesce has some difficulty capturing that in a way the audience can embrace and comprehend. The performances pull this one across the finish line convincingly and makes some truly demented behavior translate into surprisingly mainstream entertainment.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10