Piercing ★★½

In theory, I was excited for this bait-and-switch, as Nicolas Pesce made the bloodcurdling, monochrome chiller The Eyes of My Mother. It announced him as a dexterous auteur who had a keen eye for unnerving tableauxs. I've been waiting for his follow-up ever since.

At least he'd venture into a blackly comic S&M whatsit now. By adapting Ryû Murakami's novel (who was responsible for Audition), he couldn't be pigeonholed into a single genre. There's a lot of promise that had me thrilled.

Or so I thought. Of course, this still deals with psychopathy, but to a more pastiche-ridden degree. The problem, I suspect, is that Pesce's ode to sleazy 70's cinema just feels like old hat. While I realize it's inspired by the source material, there are ellipses in how concise this feels, particularly from what occurs in the opening scene.

This begins with demented maniac Reed (Christopher Abbott) who must control himself from stabbing his infant daughter with an ice pick. When his wife Mona (Laia Costa) tries to calm him, Reed goes interstate on a "business trip" to enact some evil deeds. The plan: find a prostitute, share chit chat, use chloroform, mutilate her, clean the prints, and return home. Maybe that'll satiate his hunger.

Cue bob-head blonde call girl Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) who happens to be just as disturbed. The portions I did enjoy: Reed's OCD fretfulness—providing Jackie with an espresso that he carefully holds with a tissue, which makes for some deliriously twisted humour. Between Abbott's straight-faced psychopathic impulses and Wasikowska's salaciously mischievous counterpart, they make for a compelling two-hander. Despite all the viscera they're given.

From then on, Piercing turns into a boorish act of endless sadism. The kinky malice that Jackie responds with is initially wild, but afterwards is an onslaught of gruesome torture that overstays its lithe runtime. Either Pesce should've kept this as a short film, or added some required baggage among the repetition.

Instead, this could've benefited from including Mona's supportive proclivities (as Costa is reduced to the dire telephone-wife role). Nor does Pesce even bother to enhance the tormented ghoulishness of Reed desiring to kill his child—reduced to the intro, and forgotten thereafter. Then comes the inane third-act which attempts to explain how Reed became this way via childhood memories, as if that isn't the tackiest facet to employ.

So, with that said, he made the antithesis of how I wanted this S&M weaponizer to be. That's not to say he isn't inspired elsewhere. As the jazzy, lounge-ridden saxophone score is often amusing to Reed's tryout of vicious dismemberment. The other accompaniments, though, literally using De Palma and Argento's giallo-esque accompaniments from their 70's films seem more like blatant plagiarism. At least the retro furnished architecture, and contorted skyscrapers, make for a sleek world that is fitting to Reed and Jackie's funhouse environment.

If only that could've enhanced this lingering world of hurt. No doubt, the gallows humour is an unhinged delight (mainly with Reed's hacksawing preparations/OCD complexes), but only grows more tiresome when the same tone is maintained alongside Jackie's perpetual torture. I'm stunned that Pesce went so grimly solemn in his brilliant debut, yet this marks a far more depressing route. I'm sure he'll return to form again.