The gap between an idea and its execution can be surprisingly wide. Sometimes, it’s fear that hinders action: the thought of getting tied up might be a turn on, but you could still have a panic attack when you suddenly can’t move your arms. Sometimes, it’s the knowledge that the mind’s eye will always be more perfect than the real thing. Mostly, though, it’s simply reality that intrudes.
Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing is all about that divide. Based on Audition author Ryu Murakami’s novel of the same name, Pesce’s dark comedy opens with Reed (Christopher Abbott) standing over his newborn baby with an ice pick. After resisting the urge to stab the child, Reed comes up with a meticulous plan to purge himself of his dark desires: he will rent a hotel in the city and kill a prostitute instead. Unfortunately for him, the sex worker of his choosing, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), is just as damaged as he is, and her surprising behaviour leaves his plan in tatters.
Murakami’s original novel is a slow-moving tragedy about the way trauma lingers and poisons our adult lives. It is steeped in the psychology of its two leads, and marries horror and melancholy to moving effect. Pesce’s adaptation ignores all of that. What little backstory we get is conveyed primarily in a truly unnerving hallucination sequence towards the end.
What we’re left with, then, is a demonic screwball comedy about a bumbling man’s failed attempt at a flawed fantasy, and the woman who would be the perfect victim if she wasn’t so entrenched in pain herself. Pesce builds the film’s aesthetic around artifice, constructing a broken facsimile of the real world. Every exterior set appears to be a miniature—glossy symmetrical buildings, leading infinitely into the horizon. The interiors are empty dollhouses, places where hotel liquor bottles have no brands, only the names of the alcohol in designer fonts. Most telling are his music choices. The soundtrack consists entirely of cuts from classic giallo scores—from Tenebre to Deep Red—the music of sexy killers killing sexy people; only here, Reed is not smooth enough and Jackie not vulnerable enough to easily fit into such a sleek murderous realm.
It takes a while for the characters to realise how out of their depth they are. The first half, as Reed neurotically practices for the murder, is particularly hilarious. In one scene, he mimes his entire plan, and the film matches his empty actions with jolting, disgusting foley effects. All the while, Pesce continually cuts to Jackie lazily waking up and getting ready for the appointment, stumbling around in a drug-induced haze. When the pair finally meet, the disconnect between them is so strong that Reed spends more time convincing Jackie to stay than preparing for her death.
Sadly, the film never quite delivers on the subversive emotional potential of its premise. No matter how good Pesce is at injecting the grotesque into comedy, he doesn’t care to develop character or plot enough to vault Piercing into something more than just a funny academic exercise. In his 2016 debut, The Eyes of My Mother, his preference for atmosphere over narrative depth worked in the context of a pure mood piece. Here, these characters are constantly learning from and bouncing off of each other, but Pesce struggles to clearly articulate these character transformations to the audience. Abbott remains one of the finest rising actors, his deep-set eyes able to twitch from deeply disturbed to neurotically flailing in an instant. He rises to the challenge, despite his underwritten character. Wasikowska, however, does not quite manifest the volatility required to fill in the blanks of her character. That’s not entirely her fault, though, as Pesce’s script refuses to explicate her motivations, even to a level as bare as Reed’s. That leaves the film in a place where half its story ends up driven by emotionally and logically inexplicable behaviour, leaving it sputtering to a whimper of a conclusion.
Still, it’s rare for a comedy this directorially confident to bloodily stomp onto our screens. If only Pesce was able to match his aesthetic ambitions with lasting emotional engagement, well, maybe that’s a poetic coincidence. As Piercing aptly demonstrates, desire and ability are two entirely different things.