‘Piercing’ Review: Murder Means Never Having to Say Your Sorry – Rolling Stone
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‘Piercing’ Review: Murder Means Never Having to Say Your Sorry

Cinematic hot take on Ryu Murakami’s S&M/psychopath love story is one part Seventies horror, one part misguided lit-adaptation — and all gorgeous surfaces

Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska in PIERCING

Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska in 'Piercing.'

Universal Pictures Group

Reed (Christopher Abbott) wants to stab somebody. Sorry, wrong word — he needs to stab somebody. Standing over his baby in the middle of the night, wielding an ice pick perilously close to the infant’s neck, the man can feel this urge overwhelming him. Luckily, his wife (Laia Costa) wakes up and tells him to come back to bed. But Reed knows he has to scratch this pathological itch somehow. “You know what you have to do, right?” his nine-month-old asks him in a deep, warped-sounding voice. That’s the second sign that something is maybe not quite right with our man’s head.

So he packs a bag — your basic overnight requirements like rope, tape, a change of clothes and a hacksaw and whatnot — and books a hotel room. The idea is to hire a escort, tie her up, murder her and dispose of the body. Boom, insatiable need now sated! Only the prostitute he’s preordered can’t make it, which means the service has send to a replacement. That would be Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman with a blonde bob, a sunny disposition and a specialty in bondage. She arrives and goes into her seduction act. An uncomfortable laugh on his part sends her fleeing in to the bathroom. When Reed finally breaks down the locked door, he finds Jackie repeatedly stabbing herself in the thigh with scissors. This may be easier than I imagined, you can see him thinking. On the contrary: The evening is about to become infinitely more complicated.

When Ryu Murakami’s Nineties novel Piercing hit shelves in translated version in 2007, phrases like “a compendium of Hollywood  psychological horror” and “a haunting Japanese version of a David Lynch nightmare” peppered reviews. The book was already being earmarked for an adaptation, in other words — it was just a matter of which filmmaker could bring its mixture of the-killer-inside-me terror and a subversive, homicidal-kink love story to the screen. And anyone who’d seen 2016’s The Eyes of My Mother might have assumed that any writer-director who could come up with such a deeply unnerving rural-death-trip of a debut like that would be a perfect fit for Murakami’s vision of boy-guts-girl intimacy. Close, but no blood-soaked cigar.

What we get instead is a beautifully stylized, highly demented take on the power dynamics of men and women that barely breaks the thematic surface — though what a gorgeous surface it is. Lifting the look and vibe from Italian giallos and Seventies slasher sleaze, Piercing lays on the homage thick, with cinematographer Zack Galler making the shadows abyss-dark and the colors nice ‘n’ lurid, production designer Alan Lampert giving the interiors a sort of sophisticated-yet-hellish decor and music supervisor Randall Poster aping the classic Italo-splatter scores of yesteryear. Genre fiends will applaud at the loving close-up of black leather gloves — the ultimate giallo killer signifier — and be tipped off that there may be a few hiccups in Reed’s plan when they realize it’s Jackie who’s wearing them. (Also kudos to costume designer Whitney Adams, who dresses Wasikowska in a elegantly ratty-fur-coat ensemble that’s 100-percent uncut vintage grindhouse chic.)

There are flashbacks that hint at where Reed’s compulsion may have came from, and early intimations that this S&M belle du jour is more than meets the eye, and some Halcion-daze head trips that are a good excuse to slooooow-owww-ooowww down the soundtrack and show people in rubber suits fucking. Neat! Abbott and Wasikowska dig into their roles like professionals — the latter is particularly good at suggesting both damaged goods and a demented glee as the submissive/dominant dynamics shift —  even if the screen chemistry seems slightly stillborn. Tables, they will turn, plot-wise. Yet you slouch away from this horroshow feeling like you’ve watched a cinematic bric-a-brac fashion show instead of film interpretation of one extremely knotty novel. Piercing is not exactly a sophomore slump for Pesce, nor is it an embarrassment for anyone else involved. But the longer you watch it, the more inadvertently ironic the title becomes.

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