Film Review | Surrealist Savagery in Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing

Have you ever wondered what Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo would look like drenched in Cronenbergian atmosphere and surrealism only to be fused together with Takashi Miike’s Audition and Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena? If your answer is an immediate, resounding yes, then Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing is the movie for you.

Based on Ryu Murakami’s novel of the same name, Piercing follows Reed (Christopher Abbott), a seemingly loving father and husband who leaves his wife and child for the night to dedicate his time to the importance of his work. A noble quality of any husband and father, if Reed was not secretly plotting to murder an entirely helpless, unsuspecting prostitute called Jackie (Mia Wasikowska). That’s correct: Reed is in fact a deranged serial killer. And, unfortunately for him, things don’t go quite as well as he would have wished.

Behind the backdrop of 70’s nostalgia and the beating pulse of giallo-esque melodies, Piercing reels the viewer into a strange world that demands your utmost attention from its bizarre opening moments to its perfectly executed finale. By the time the credits have started rolling, your mind will still attempt to digest what has just unfolded before your very eyes, over and over again.

One of Piercing‘s greatest achievements is its unflinching attention to the macabre relationship between Reed and Jackie. Abbott and Wasikowska invest entirely in Pesce’s vision and you can’t help but become enthralled in their execution. Abbott is timid but terrifying when it is needed and Wasikowska is believably fragile but convincingly calculating.

As Piercing progresses, it is easy to see that both Abbott and Wasikowska had a lot of fun with their respective roles. Both Abbott and Wasikowska manage to make you laugh, cringe and applaud with joy. Both give utterly convincing portrayals of two individuals tainted by the strangeness of Pesce’s brilliantly crafted world. The chemistry between the two leads grows throughout and eventually climaxes with a hugely satisfying conclusion to Reed and Jackie’s short-lived nightmare together.

The city in which this story unfolds is also one of Pesce’s crowning achievements. Although almost entirely set in a number of small rooms, Pesce manages to bring the city around Reed and Jackie to life with strong attention to nostalgic detail. From the smart wardrobe choices to what lies beyond the windows of Jackie’s apartment to the textures and lighting in almost every shot, Pesce has managed to create some sort of 70’s dystopian, jazz nightmare. Vibrant colours and charming musical ambiance bring life to each and every interaction.

Pesce also handles the more disturbing moments in Piercing with impressive ease. Vision will blur, sounds will unsettle and some moments will terrify and make your skin crawl. Pesce focuses largely on unease and at its peak, Piercing is impressively deranged much like its main characters. It all escalates to an infectious climax that immediately brings to mind Takashi Miike’s Audition but still manages to remain fresh and different. The comparison with Miike is no mistake given that Miike’s Audition was originally a novel written by Ryu Murakami. If you have witnessed Audition in all its glory, you will know what to expect from Pesce’s movie. But nonetheless, Piercing will surprise you with its weirder moments.

Piercing, however, is not without its faults. The pace at which Piercing moves can be sluggish at times, particularly in its middle. Interactions between Reed and Jackie can be overly long here and there but it never becomes a deterring factor warranting an exit. A particular scene involving Reed and Jackie returning to Jackie’s apartment struggles heavily in parts but it leads once again into delicious surrealist savagery that begs for your fine tuned focus. Much of the interaction throughout its 80 minute runtime is necessary for character development as Piercing, at its core, is very much a character study but one can’t help but feel it may have benefitted more from a bit of trimming here and there.

In truth, the best way to approach Piercing is to know very little about its true nature. I went in almost completely blind, only knowing the premise and hearing of its disturbing nature and I have come out the other side morbidly satisfied. When the credits rolled and the classic theme of Tenebre sounded through my speakers, I left Piercing with every intention to return again. This year, not many films have achieved that status.

Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing is a movie that stays with you long after it’s over, for better or worse, and if you can buy into its deliciously hilarious charm, then it will be difficult to come away disappointed. Piercing is not a movie for everyone but very early on, you should become aware of whether this trip is going to be one worth investing in. Pesce is currently working on a remake of the classic J-Horror movie, The Grudge, and if Piercing is any indication of the promise it may possess, I cannot wait to see what Pesce spews forth for the masses to (hopefully) devour.

Piercing is streaming on Netflix now.

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