×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Piercing’

An orderly murder takes a twist in Nicolas Pesce's stunning but bloodless black comedy.

Director:
Nicolas Pesce
With:
Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa, Marin Ireland, Maria Dizzia, Wendell Pierce.

1 hour 21 minutes

A man, a plan, an ice pick. In Nicolas Pesce’s “Piercing,” a bold S&M comedy with a hollow sting inspired by the novel by Ryû Murakami, Christopher Abbott plays a new dad (and closet psychopath) who resists the urge to stab his infant daughter with an ice pick by planning the perfect murder. Instead, Reed rents a hotel room and practices his moves: Greet prostitute, wipe prints off doorknob, make small talk, pounce on her with chloroform, dismember her in the bathtub, and return home to his wife (Laia Costa) and baby a cleansed man.

Of course, life — and death — don’t follow a script, and call girl Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), a disturbed blonde with a Dutch Boy bob, tramples over his plans, and adds a few to-dos of her own. The film is expertly crafted with jewel-toned cinematography, terrifically sleazy saxophone music, and performances by Abbott and Wasikowska that take turns seizing command. Still, like Reed’s solo rehearsals, “Piercing” has the feel of a blueprint, a talented man exercising his technical skills while waiting for a whack at the real deal.

Pesce understands perfectionism. He’s a stylist hunting to find meaning, which so far in this and his striking black-and-white debut “The Eyes of My Mother,” means he uses interesting ideas as set dressing, hanging tragedies on the walls like trophy heads. He filmed “Piercing” with miniatures and puppets to map out every shot before doing it again with people. To Murakami, “Piercing” is a black comedy about abuse. The book’s two torturers, Reed and Jackie, are also victims trying to see if their traumas line up. Neither is looking for love so much as a synchronized kinky exhalation: “Is this really okay?” each seems to be asking.

But Pesce is more interested in a portrait of an obsessive whose agenda goes awry. He dotes on order, close-ups of neat pencil lines and notebooks of tidy handwriting, and makes a dance number of repeated actions, the way Reed twists the hotel doorknob with a handkerchief to prevent fingerprints and the clang-clang of Jackie cleaning out her espresso machine to make another cup. While the plot sounds like “American Psycho” — and Wasikowska has been made up like a doppelgänger for the dour hooker Christie, who survives Bateman only to come back for seconds — the film is really a fiendish version of Blake Edwards’ “The Party,” with Abbott as a Peter Sellers-esque straight man-slash-fool who labors to act normal and stick to the script.

Abbott, the slender indie actor who broke out as the volatile lead in Josh Mond’s “James White,” turns out to be a hilarious mime. He looks soft and bendable — not rubber so much as a willow twisting in the wind — and when he practices hoisting a dead woman to the bathtub, you see his back muscles strain. Minutes later, he feigns hacksawing off her limbs with such intensity he seems to sweat. Pesce cheats a little in this sequence by layering in the sound of metal rasping against bone. It’s forgivable because you need that audible reminder that this gentle-looking soul wants to do real harm.

You sense that to the director, a scrambled plan is his version of torture. Pesce’s version erases Jackie’s past and limits Reed’s violent history to a quick third-act flashback. The reveal could be excused as repressed memories spouting to the surface like blood from a stab wound, but another person references the stories earlier in a pep talk to get Reed psyched to kill. The insert comes so late, the film doesn’t need it at all — the new information feels like an answer to a question we didn’t ask.

Instead, “Piercing” plays best as an indoor game with two players figuring out if they’re competing or on a team. The sets look like manicured dollhouses with cherry-wood paneling and rust-red carpets, colors that can hide a smear of gore. In the rare moments when the camera goes outside, the city looks like a cardboard model made by an architect of doom. Murakami first published “Piercing” in 1994, but the film has the look of the late ’70s with its coiled beige landlines and ancient record players. The soundtrack thunders with horns and harpsichords and, occasionally, a swell of romantic violins that swoon as though Ali MacGraw is pretending to die from cancer.

Amidst all this wonderful, yet empty, artificiality, Abbott and Wasikowska’s brawls look like a choreographed pas de deux. This might be the best role Wasikowska’s had in years. She’s spent her career playing dress-up in period dramas and twisted thrillers like “Stoker” and “Crimson Peak,” and seems to have pooled her “Alice in Wonderland” paychecks for the chance to afford to do something more fun. Her Jackie could have easily been a demented manic-pixie creation, but Wasikowska fills her with more life than she’s given in the script. In a look, we see Jackie’s jaded hurt and hunger for connection. There’s a whole world in her smiles, which range from fake to vulnerable to frightening. When she curls next to Reed in a tender moment that has us gnawing on our nails, Pesce lights her round cheeks so they glow like a baby’s. Too bad for her that’s her date’s dream target.

Sundance Film Review: 'Piercing'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival – Midnight, Jan. 20, 2018. Running time: 81 MIN.

Production: A Paradise City, YL Pictures presentation, in association with Memento Films Intl., of a Borderline Presents production.(International sales: UTA, Los Angeles.) Producers: Josh Mond, Antonio Campos, Schuyler Weiss, Jacob Wasserman. Co-producers: Charles Miller, Brighton McCloskey. Executive producers: Sean Durkin, Max Born, Avi Stern, Emilie Georges, Naima Abed, Nicholas Kaiser, Al Di, Phil Hoelting.

Crew: Director-writer: Nicolas Pesce, adapted from the novel by Ryû Murakami. Camera (color): Zachary Galler. Editor: Sofía Subercaseaux.

With: Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa, Marin Ireland, Maria Dizzia, Wendell Pierce.

More Film

  • Agustina San Martin Talks Cannes Special

    Agustina San Martin Talks Cannes Special Mention Winner ‘Monster God’

    CANNES – An exploration of the ramifications of God, “Monster God,” from Argentina’s Agustina San Martín, took a Special Mention – an effective runner’s up prize – on Saturday night at this year’s Cannes Film Festival short film competition. It’s not difficult to see why, especially when jury president Claire Denis own films’ power resists [...]

  • Atlantics

    Netflix Snags Worldwide Rights to Cannes Winners 'Atlantics,' 'I Lost My Body'

    Mati Diop’s feature directorial debut “Atlantics” and Jérémy Clapin’s animated favorite “I Lost My Body” have both been acquired by Netflix following wins at Cannes Film Festival. “Atlantics” was awarded the grand prix while “I Lost My Body” was voted the best film at the independent International Critics Week. The deals are for worldwide rights [...]

  • Stan Lee, left, and Keya Morgan

    Stan Lee's Former Business Manager Arrested on Elder Abuse Charges

    Stan Lee’s former business manager, Keya Morgan, was arrested in Arizona Saturday morning on an outstanding warrant from the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD’s Mike Lopez confirmed that the arrest warrant was for the following charges: one count of false imprisonment – elder adult; three counts of grand theft from elder or dependent adult, [...]

  • Moby attends the LA premiere of

    Moby Apologizes to Natalie Portman Over Book Controversy

    Moby has issued an apology of sorts after writing in his recently published memoir “Then It Fell Apart” that he dated Natalie Portman when she was 20 — a claim the actress refuted. “As some time has passed I’ve realized that many of the criticisms leveled at me regarding my inclusion of Natalie in Then [...]

  • Bong Joon-ho reacts after winning the

    Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' Wins the Palme d'Or at Cannes

    CANNES — The 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival wrapped with jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu announcing the group’s unanimous decision to award the Palme d’Or to South Korean director Bong Joon-ho for his sly, politically charged “Parasite.” Following last year’s win for humanistic Japanese drama “Shoplifters,” the well-reviewed Asian thriller represents the yin [...]

  • Invisible Life Brazilian Cinema

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão'

    A “tropical melodrama” is how the marketing materials bill “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão.” If that sounds about the most high-camp subgenre ever devised, Karim Aïnouz’s ravishing period saga lives up to the description — high emotion articulated with utmost sincerity and heady stylistic excess, all in the perspiring environs of midcentury Rio de [...]

  • Best Movies of Cannes 2019

    The 10 Best Movies of Cannes 2019

    The Cannes Film Festival is too rich an event to truly have an “off” year, but by the end of the 72nd edition, it was more or less universally acknowledged that the festival had regained a full-on, holy-moutaintop-of-art luster that was a bit lacking the year before. It helps, of course, to have headline-making movies [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content