Over the past decade, a trend has emerged with small-budget genre films (from The Guest to It Follows to the Purge franchise) cribbing their look from horror maestro John Carpenter. Part of this undoubtedly stems from a younger generation of filmmakers finally getting the chance to flaunt their childhood influences, yet it also caught on in a big, bad way; ever hear of that show Stranger Things? Now, it seems arthouse directors have found a more hip and esoteric field to mine: the Italian giallo, a hyper-stylized and gruesome subgenre that flourished in the ’60s and ’70s. Last year saw Luca Guadagnino write his thesis on giallo by not so much remaking Dario Argento’s Suspiria than demolishing it entirely, while the dazzling Let the Corpses Tan used the genre’s tropes to craft an abstract dream of sex and bullets.
Piercing, the sophomore feature from 29-year-old Nicolas Pesce, doesn’t have any shame concerning its giallo influences, opening with grainy, ’70s-style credits and blatantly borrowing the iconic theme music from Deep Red and Tenebre (among others). However, Pesce does enough with the story’s tone (adapted from a novel by Ryu Murakami, author of Audition), meshing black comedy and gloomy sadism, to make the film its own thing. It’s too bad, then, that Piercing loses itself in a meandering third act, taking its sparse premise into needlessly lugubrious territory.
Reed (Christopher Abbott) is a total psychopath but he really doesn’t want to be. We, the audience, know this because the movie opens with him dangling an ice pick over his infant child, resisting the urge to plunge it into his forehead. He’s a family man, so he decides to murder a prostitute and purge his savage desires once and for all. All does not go according to plan.
The first act of Piercing’s scant runtime (81 minutes!) is a macabre delight. Reed checks into a hotel room and begins pantomiming the entire murder as an act of preparation. With his minute attention to detail and nervous body language, Abbot’s performance is broadly comic but shockingly effective. The goofy lounge score playing against this premeditation montage confirms Reed is, in fact, a complete dork.
Once Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) enters the film as the potential victim, the dark comedic tone is abandoned and the story alternates between a somber meditation on Reed’s abusive childhood and a joyless exercise in bodily desecration. Like Audition, certain unsettling character revelations are made that cast the rest of the film in a different light. Jackie’s idea of foreplay is a tad more transgressive than even Reed bargained for, and Pesce’s script toys with the idea of turning male entitlement on its head without really doing anything new with it.
The tonal shift from laff-riot to brooding torture-porn fails to connect in that Piercing doesn’t give us enough reason to care about either Jackie or Reed, despite Abbott and Wasikowska’s convincing performances. Jackie’s character holds a few surprises, sure, but she’s mostly a frustrating enigma there to serve the story’s themes rather than feel like a genuine character. Reed has the opposite problem as someone we’re initially supposed to scoff at until the movie asks us to care about the inner workings of his psyche.
Pesce has already proven himself to be an immensely skilled writer-director with his 2016 debut, The Eyes of My Mother. That film was a black-and-white hellscape of a serial-killer tale. It unfolded with the deliberate dread of a nightmare and was packed with unspeakably upsetting imagery that hasn’t left me in the three years since its release. Piercing is another serial-killer yarn, but that’s where the comparisons end, and I can’t fault Pesce for trying a different approach. The dude definitely has it, and an admirable misfire like this shouldn’t keep him off anyone’s radar.