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.