As you sit down to watch the new thriller PIERCING, a number of nagging questions may pester you, based on the sales pitch of the movie. Do we really need another serial killer story or another female lead who’s a prostitute? And isn’t a happily married man with a baby living a double life as a serial killer all a bit too DEXTER? Haven’t we seen this material many times before? Those concerns nagged me as I started PIERCING, but soon the film and its numerous surprises won me over. This film may be dealing with a lot of tropes that are tried and true, but it keeps twisting and turning the pulp, based on the novel by Ryu Murakami, into something fresh and unique.
For starters, this is a horror movie that’s more of a dark comedy, and one that is actually exceptionally witty at that. Dark comedy has been having a field day as of late, what with such entries as BLACKKKLANSMAN and THE FAVOURITE making the Academy Award’s final eight, and PIERCING keeps the genre momentum going. This film is exceedingly bleak and black, and writer/director Nicholas Pesce does a superb job of keeping everything nihilistic and tawdry, inviting us to laugh at the two screwed-up leads at the center of this two-hander.
The couple doing a mating dance of death and destruction around each other are a mild-mannered serial killer named Reed (Christopher Abbott) and his potential victim, a moody call girl named Jackie (Mia Wasikowska). In the opening scene of the film, the evil Reed actually contemplates stabbing his infant daughter with an ice pick as she cries in her crib. Clearer heads prevail though as the killer knows the way to channel his homicidal urges. He has developed a painstakingly regimented modus operandi of traveling to another city on a faux business trip to lure a prostitute into his lair where he will stab her. He shrewdly seeks out call girls who will let him tie them up for S & M, and when they’re capacitated, he slices them to ribbons. With his demons exorcized, he cleans up and returns home to his loving wife Mona (Laia Costa), ready to play the doting husband and father once again.
This time though, he’s picked the wrong prostitute. Jackie is a real piece of work, on edge and moody. She’s alternatingly brusque and sweet towards him, and it throws Reed for a loop. How can he be in control when the call girl seems to be making him jump through her hoops? He keeps trying to gain the upper hand, attempting to cajole her into letting him tie her up, but she keeps delaying the inevitable. Jackie wants to order food first, chat for a while, and get to know him. She’s lonely, and more than a little psycho herself, and the more she doddles, the less calm and collected Reed is able to act. Suddenly, he doesn’t seem like a modern Ted Bundy, using his good looks and calming matter to gain the trust of his target, but rather, a nerdy teen boy unsure of what to do when a hot classmate invites him to the prom.
Abbott is an actor who runs the emotional gamut in most roles from A to D, and that suits Reed perfectly. He plays the character very close to the vest, not giving up too much, even at his most discombobulated. This is a cold-hearted ice machine who can rationalize every step of his killing spree, from the need to hear the victim scream to his tightly packed death kit. Barely room in his suitcase for a change of clothes, what with all the weaponry and chloroform taking up so much real estate.
Wasikowska is shrewdly cast too in the more enigmatic role of Jackie. Will the wry heroine she played in Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND show up here, or a surprising and evil character more akin to the stone-cold killer she essayed in Chan-wook Park’s STOKER? Maybe both, actually. Indeed, Jackie turns the tables on Reed in many ways, starting with all her chattiness when they first get together. And she becomes a walking jumble of mixed signals throughout. Jackie may wear a little girl’s page boy haircut and have the pouty, pink cheeks of a grade schooler, but her womanly gait is excessively world-weary, and her side-eyed glances would put to shame a slithering serpent about to swallow a rodent whole.
When Jackie disappears into the bathroom of Reed’s darkly sensual hotel room to freshen up, the serial killer thinks she’ll come out in her S & M garb, and he can get the ball gag rolling. Instead, she viciously stabs herself repeatedly in the leg in what appears to be an act of self-hatred. Horrified, and even driven to sympathize, Reed turns into a good Samaritan, rushing her to the emergency room for treatment of her gouged leg. As he waits for her release, the insecure Reed tortures himself with bad memories from his past, many which led him to become a killer. Then, when Jackie is released, they both soften towards each other, and it looks like the film might turn into romantic treacle. But Pesce isn’t interested in that in the slightest and stays true to the material’s sadistic bent.
To give away any more of the story would be to spoil many of the rich surprises awaiting viewers. Suffice it to say, Reed will continue to lose his upper hand, Jackie will continue to straddle being both Madonna and whore, and their bonding will turn into a slow-burn Grand Guignol. Pesce takes time to dole it all out, bathing it all in dark hues, whether it's that sexy high-end hotel room or Jackie's eclectic apartment, all the while turning his pacing into its own vicious tease. The director constantly zigs right when you’re sure he’s going to zag. His film may be stylish and jazzy, but as the story continues, it becomes more and more bizarre, shockingly cruel, and funny as hell. It’s a film about S & M that indeed, teases its audience and enjoys smacking us around the whole time. And boy, does it hurt so good.