In most films, the sight of a slaughtered human body — weighed down at the bottom of a public swimming pool with blood gushing from its wounds — would be the most stomach-churning thing in any given scene. “Piggy,” however, is not most films. In Spanish writer-director Carlota Pereda’s striking psychological slasher, the image passes without comment in the background, so incidental that we briefly wonder if our eyes have deceived us. For we’ve already been rattled by the real violence of the scene: plus-size teenager Sara (Laura Galán) being gleefully and relentlessly taunted by svelte mean-girl bullies, who then attempt drowning her with a pool net for extra laughs. Small wonder Sara doesn’t notice the dead man in the water, or that we barely register it. Pereda’s viciously impressive debut uses standard genre shocks almost as MacGuffins; it’s the all-too-recognizable horror of brutalized adolescence that really makes us wince.
Premiering in Sundance’s Midnight strand, “Piggy” sits at an unexpected intersection of artistic sensibilities, first recalling Catherine Breillat, then Brian DePalma, before taking a deep, bloody plunge into grindhouse (or perhaps that should be meatgrinder-house) territory toward its unsettling, ambiguous finale. Yet in fluently expanding her Goya-winning, festival-lauded short of the same name to feature length, Pereda shuffles tones and influences with enough finesse and genre smarts to ensure that this little “Piggy” will go very successfully to market. It’s easy to imagine the filmmaker soon graduating to bigger, glossier assignments, rather like the comparable Julia Ducournau before her: One hopes she likewise retains her nasty nerve.
Over the opening credits, gnarly images of meat being drained, hacked and stacked foreshadow greater carnage to come, as cinematographer Rita Noriega’s humid, prying lensing envelops us in the grim daily routine of the butcher shop owned by Sara’s parents in a sleepy Extremadura village near the Portuguese border. We’re in the middle of a hot, heavy summer, and Sara has been reluctantly enlisted to help out in the store — though she separates herself from its operations via immersive over-ear headphones, the color palette shifting from blood-red to pastille pink every time the shot drifts over to her. Not that she has much else to do. Shy and friendless, she whiles away the days staring at the pretty neighborhood cool girls — both from the shop window and on Instagram — with a mixture of loathing and longing.
Led by queen bee Maca (Claudia Salas), they in turn endlessly torment Sara, both in person and online: “Piggy” is their unimaginative nickname for her, used liberally and without an ounce of affection. Only quiet blonde Claudia (Irene Ferreiro) hangs back slightly from the clique’s bullying, though she doesn’t intervene either. Sara daren’t tell her protective but brusque mother (Carmen Machi, superb) about the bullying, while the girls’ poolside assault on her is witnessed only by a hulking, taciturn stranger (Richard Holmes) taking a dip at the same time. Turns out he’s not quite a passive observer: As Sara later stumbles home in her bikini, her clothes and phone having been stolen by Maca, she sees the same man attacking and abducting her bullies, bundling them into a van and gazing at her complicitly before driving off.
Soon after, the pool lifeguard’s dead body is discovered in the water, another woman is murdered in her home, and it becomes clear this usually humdrum community is in the grip of a serial killer. To Sara, however, he’s something of a guardian angel: Not sure why she was spared, and strangely turned on by this rare encounter with mercy, she keeps the secret of the missing girls’ abduction to herself, even as their parents and the police insist she must know something. Is she exacting revenge by accidental proxy? Or is she perversely hoping he’ll come back for her too? Pereda’s sinuous script and Galán’s remarkable, emotionally volatile performance keep her precise motivations perversely just out of view — perhaps even to Sara herself, as she embraces a kind of dark fatalism that, in her prematurely weary mind, can’t be worse than whatever else life has in store for her. Like the eponymous heroine of “Carrie,” she’s a wallflower suddenly granted extraordinary powers of life and death over others; unlike Carrie, she needs no supernatural abilities to wield them.
Shooting in tight Academy ratio, Pereda and Noriega use boxy closeups and sweaty, intimate lighting to suggest Sara’s sense of confinement in her small, provincial, unkind life. Her body is shot frankly but not exploitatively, her discomfort with other people’s stares reflected back at the impassive camera lens. Galán keeps us attuned to Sara’s troubled body image in every scene, whether she’s trying to escape people’s notice making herself as small as possible, or fighting the limits of her physicality when fleeing a carful of leering, mocking young men — in a gruelingly sustained shot that may not be gory, but is harder and crueler to watch than any standard torture porn. A brutish, bearded murderer isn’t exactly a red herring in Pereda’s ferocious debut, but he’s not what “Piggy” fears most.