Piercing (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A certain kinky foreplay

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“Piercing” is a little kinky comedy thriller which wryly unnerves and amuses us. As cheerfully observing the very tricky foreplay process between its two deeply perverse characters, the movie provides a number of darkly amusing moments along with some nice stylish touches to be appreciated, and we come to go along with its twisted comical spirit even while observing its story and characters from the distance.

Right from the very beginning, the movie clearly shows us a murderous urge churning inside its hero. While he seems to be an average family guy on the surface, Reed (Christopher Abbott) has struggled with his growing impulse to kill, and we get a very disturbing moment showing him on the verge of the tipping point with an ice pick held right above his baby child.

While he manages to repress his urge when his wife comes, Reed discerns that he really should do something about his urge, so he comes to plan a murder. After telling his wife that he will be absent for a while due to his work, he goes to a hotel, and then he reviews every detail of his murder plan after checking into his hotel room. In addition to preparing several sharp tools including that ice pick, he tries a little experiment on how long his victim will be anesthetized by chloroform, and we get a darkly hilarious moment when he later practices a bit on how to take care of his victim’s dead body in the bathroom.

Once it looks like he is fully ready for his nasty business, Reed calls an escort service, and he is notified that a girl will soon come to his hotel room. After that girl in question, named Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), arrives around one hour later, everything seems to be going well according to his plan as she looks eager to do anything demanded by him, and the mood becomes a little playful and absurd when Reed clumsily asks Jackie whether she can do a certain kinky thing, which is necessary for his murder plan.

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While never overlooking what may happen between these two characters in the end, the movie slowly dials up the level of tension during this part, but then it suddenly takes an unexpected narrative turn. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead that the adapted screenplay by director/adapter Nicholas Pesce, which is based on the novel of the same name by Ryû Murakami, subsequently pushes its two characters into more absurdity, and I assure you that you will get a good laugh when Reed seriously ruminates at one point on whether Jackie is actually aware of what is really going on between them.

The situation becomes a little tenser later in the story as Reed comes to Jackie’s cozy residence along with her. She seems to be attracted to him, but she remains elusive to him as before, and we come to wonder who has the real power over the situation. Does she really know about his true intention? If so, does she merely want to be playful and tantalizing before fully submitting herself to his dark urge? Or, does she have an intention which may be more perverse than Reed’s?

As constantly toying with these possibilities, the movie occasionally emphasizes its warped reality of its two characters via several stylish elements. While the urban environment surrounding them is mainly presented through a bunch of miniature buildings shown in the background, the artificial ambience of the film is further accentuated by the slick cinematography by Zack Galler, and the soundtrack, which mainly consists of various pop songs, functions well as an effective counterpart to the unnerving interactions between Reed and Jackie.

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The movie depends a lot on the talent and presence of its two lead performers, who play against each other as well as, say, Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson in “Hard Candy” (2005). As ably conveying to us his character’s increasing bafflement and confusion along the story, Christopher Abbott, who recently drew our attention via his soulful performance in “James White” (2015), keeps his acting straight throughout the film, and that is why the very last shot of the film works as a nice punch line. While Abbott steadily holds the ground, Mia Wasikowska, who has advanced a lot with a string of solid performances since “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) and “The Kids Are All Right” (2010), has a juicy fun with her character, and she is particularly commendable in several key scenes during the second half of the film.

“Piercing” is the second feature film directed by Pesce, who previously made “The Eyes of My Mother” (2016). I have not seen that film yet, but, as far as I can see from “Piercing”, he is a competent filmmaker who knows how to engage us via mood and storytelling. While there are a couple of moments which will surely make you wince for good reasons, they are presented with some restraint at least, and I appreciate how deftly Pesce handles his disturbing story materials without resorting to any gratuitous moment.

Although it often feels like a short film stretched out a bit too long, “Piercing” mostly works during its rather short running time (81 minutes), and so I recommend it with some reservation. Sure, it is definitely not something you can comfortably watch, but it is skillfully made with enough style and atmosphere, and I sort of enjoyed that anyway.

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