'Piercing': Film Review | Sundance 2018

A nail-biter whose sick premise conceals a stranger agenda.

Mia Wasikowska doesn't know what Christopher Abbott has planned for her in Nicolas Pesce's intimate sex-and-violence thriller.

A psychosexual horror film with a seam of black comedy lying under the surface, Nicolas Pesce's Piercing offers a sadomasochistic two-hander and dares viewers to figure out who's on top at any given moment. Based on a novel by Ryu Murakami, who wrote the source material for Takashi Miike's Audition and several other movies, the film balances revulsion with allure and all its action against the question of who knows what, when. Stars Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska go a long way toward keeping this tricky pic balanced, though Pesce's knowing use of sleazy-seventies vibe (following the distinctive black-and-white spareness of The Eyes of My Mother, his only previous feature) creates the perfect world for them to do it in.

Abbott's Reed is a new father whose complaints about workplace stress are clearly a red herring. When we meet him, he's holding an icepick close to the head of his infant; the infant speaks to him — "you know what we have to do, right?" — or at least Reed seems to believe that's where the voice comes from. Unaware of the whole ice pick/baby thing, his wife (Laia Costa) tries to soothe him, but what Reed needs is a fake business trip where he can exorcise some demons.

Reed checks into a sleek hotel and arranges for a call girl, after which we see him strenuously rehearsing each of the movements he must make in order to knock the woman out, drag her to the bathtub and dismember her. We have little idea yet why he needs to kill, but he certainly knows how he'll do it. Assuming the prostitute doesn't go off script.

In a De Palma-esque sequence set to music from the 1972 giallo The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Wasikowska's Jackie arrives, immediately throwing his plan off course. Reed clearly has had sex, assuming that kid is his, but Abbott projects such a deer-in-headlights bewilderment that Jackie needs to take things into her own hands. Soon, it seems to Reed that Jackie is as intent on being hurt as he is on hurting her.

Setting side the details of the multiple reversals to come, let's just say that each participant here is a bundle of confused impulses, and each seems to struggle — given his or her interpretation of the other's behavior — with how honest to be about those desires. People get banged up and drugged; people make scenes and try to cover their tracks; people have chances to escape and choose, for one reason or another, not to.

By the third act we're in another deliciously art-directed interior (the skyscrapers housing these rooms are miniatures, adding to the pic's careful unreality), whose luxury furnishings are pointed out to us at every turn. The stakes of the game are out in the open, it seems, but the question of consent lingers stickily in the air. Is someone about to get killed, and if so, is that person actually OK with it? We don't know for sure even at the end, but that final moment before the credits offers a surprise so strange and pitch-perfect, it makes the whole affair look almost, well, sweet.

Production company: Borderline Presents
Cast: Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa
Director-Screenwriter: Nicolas Pesce
Producers: Josh Mond, Antonio Campos, Schuyler Weiss, Jacob Wasserman
Executive producers: Sean Durkin, Max Born, Avi Stern, Emilie Georges, Naima Abed, Nicholas Kaiser, Al Di, Phil Hoelting
Director of photography: Zachary Galler
Production designer: Alan Lampert
Costume designer: Whitney Adams
Editor: Sofía Subercaseaux
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Sales: UTA

80 minutes