PARK CITY, Utah — A man dangles an ice pick over a colicky baby. His eyes, blank and expressionless, point to this being far more than a sharpened provocation—he wishes to butcher this child; to gore its cherubic face until the crying stops, granting him the quietude he so desperately craves. The music swells. He cocks his weapon back like a composed Catherine Trammel, and just as he’s about to achieve sweet release, the voice of his lover (Laia Costa) foils the infanticide.
Thus begins Piercing, a carnival of perversions originally realized by Japanese novelist Ryu Murakami, and adapted for the screen by writer-director Nicolas Pesce. The film, which made its premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, is a companion piece of sorts to his debut effort, 2016’s The Eyes of My Mother, opening where it left off. Unlike that homicidal woman, the man at the center this sordid tale doesn’t harbor a fetish for extracting and bagging up eyes and vocal chords; rather, he longs to pierce the female flesh, owing to a childhood trauma.
The man is Reed, who is embodied by the baby-faced Girls actor Christopher Abbott in an inspired bit of against-type casting. Reed has, over numerous diary entries, convinced himself that the only way to cast out this demon inside him and achieve true domestic bliss—to be normal— is to capture, maim and murder a female prostitute. A plan is set in motion: Reed will rent a room at a hotel, caring to scrub every surface clean of fingerprints; invite the lady of the night into his lair; convince her to engage in some light S&M, leaving her bound and gagged; and then turn her into a bloody pulp, the exorcism complete.
There are tiny homages to its Japanese origins scattered throughout Piercing, from its pulsing min'yō-meets-J-pop soundtrack, building with Reed’s bloodlust, to its towering neon-lit buildings, a la Enter the Void. The immaculate interiors, especially that of his target, recall the Red Room of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
Reed, meanwhile, isn’t exactly cut in the Patrick Bateman mold. He’s a terribly innocent and impressionable-looking thing—he is played by Charlie from Girls, after all—whose edginess concerning the task at hand is palpable. He even runs through the entire scenario, acting out how he’d get the unsuspecting woman into the bathroom and spill her blood, his imagination bolstered by the strident sounds of carving, cutting, and exsanguinating.
With his own blood rising, he rings the call girl service and orders up his prey. But Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), with her blonde bob and black corset, is far from the vulnerable naïf he expected. She immediately turns the tables on Reed, placing him in the position of passive observer as she pleasures herself whilst sitting on a couch. When he laughs, in a nervous attempt to gain the upper hand, she retreats to the bathroom, refusing to emerge. After knocking repeatedly on the door to no avail, he opens it and comes upon Jackie violently stabbing herself in the right thigh with a pair of scissors. His initial pang of excitement soon gives way to fatherly concern, and Reed’s clumsy attempts to get the feral Jackie to the hospital for treatment dramatically—and effectively—shifts the tone from suspense to twisted meet cute.
The tone—and the tables—turn again (and again, and again), as the two-handed action expands and contracts, slipping in and out of Audition territory. Do these two deranged people really want to kill each other, or have they found the perfect, fucked-up mate?
Not all the tonal shifts work but most do, thanks to Abbott’s eerie, dead-eyed turn, allowing him to transform seamlessly from predator to victim, and Wasikowska’s ferocity. Far from her muted killer teenager in Stoker, her Jackie is a wildly unpredictable creature, embracing you one moment and mutilating you the next. It’s a masterful, macabre turn by one of the most gifted actresses around.
There are some bizarre digressions in Pesce’s story, including a surreal flashback sequence of a man and woman engaged in violent, doggy-style sex in gimp suits, and another of the stabbing variety, that divert more than enthrall. The conclusion, too, is sure to rub some viewers the wrong way. Yet I found myself tickled by this kinky little divertissement, like a sharp knife trailed across your skin as opposed to a stab in the heart.