Directed by: Nicolas Pesce
Written by: Nicolas Pesce (Adapted from the novel by Ryu Murakami)
Starring: Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska
PIERCING tells the age-old tale of a man, Reed, who must face his fears head-on. For Reed, that fear is that he might stab his infant daughter with an ice pick.
To confront that fear, Reed realizes that he must murder a prostitute with an ice pick.
That's how we begin Nicolas Pesce's follow-up to his debut arthouse horror flick THE EYES OF MY MOTHER. If that sounds bizarre, you’re on the right track. PIERCING is an immensely strange movie, but if you’re familiar with the director or the source material, you should already have a good idea of what to expect.
PIERCING is an adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s (AUDITION, IN THE MISO SOUP) 1994 novel of the same name. For those uninitiated, Murakami follows in the footsteps of Edogawa Rampo (The Human Chair, Moju: The Blind Beast) and Japan’s peculiar tradition of erotic-but-rarely-sexy-thrillers (See: Pinku films). Murakami’s own psycho-sexual thrillers explore Japan’s sleazy underworld, Tokyo’s paranoid nightlife, and the odd characters within.
PIERCING is no exception. The novel takes the profoundly weird setup described above and uses it to comment on the overworked Japanese businessman, escort services, fetishes, and fatherhood, all while delivering heaps of wry, pitch-black humor.
Pesce comes into the film with large shoes to fill. As the second director to adapt Murakami, he follows in the footsteps of Takashi Miike’s 1999 extreme J-horror classic AUDITION. Knowing the book and Murakami, I came into the film with no idea how a director could adapt it into something palatable, coherent, or successful.
Then, I remembered that Nicolas Pesce made THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a grisly movie that pulls no punches and is boldly stylish, presented in harsh black-and-white with a great deal of the dialogue in Portuguese. In his debut film, Pesce demonstrated an ability to expertly marry style and strangeness in a way that suits the surreality of PIERCING.
Going into PIERCING, I hoped Pesce’s short but impressive track-record would prove to be a perfect starting point from which to adapt a book that would otherwise be unadaptable. As much as anything, I at least hoped Pesce would present the story in its delightfully perverted whole.
My hopes were mostly met.
Before diving into the film, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about how goddamn stylish it is.
Unlike the greys of his previous film, Pesce paints the frames with vibrant reds, yellows, and blues, and combines them with striking angular arrangements of set-design and lighting. Vertical and horizontal lines stripe the frame and make it feel like a film noir collided with a Mondrian painting. The result is reminiscent of the films of Argento and Bava, with more than a splash of De Palma, all swaddled into a beautiful cubist nightmare.
The interiors, on the other hand, feel straight out of ERASERHEAD. Props and set-pieces seem to be pulled out of 70's and 80's Eastern Bloc states, then dyed bright colors and jammed into a hotel that would only exist in noir films and sleazy Italian slasher flicks.
The world of PIERCING is an anachronistic mix of art-deco and baroque fixtures that would feel out-of-place anywhere but inside the impossible architecture of the movie’s miniature cityscapes.
Did I mention the miniatures? To accentuate the visual style, the exteriors in PIERCING are comprised entirely of miniature sets, with towering walls of skyscrapers that often take up the full frame as we float up to the appropriate apartment. Toy cars fill the streets. At times, paroxysmal birds jitter past the buildings, seemingly cut from cardstock and animated with stop-motion.
Pesce combines the striking visual style with a unique, wonderful, and at times jarring choice of soundtrack. PIERCING uses music that’s almost entirely borrowed from Giallo films. Most notably Goblin’s main theme from DEEP RED, and another piece from TENEBRAE. While they’re used to great effect at times, they can also take the viewer out of the movie.
These, combined with gratuitous use of De Palma-esque split screens, lend to an acute awareness that what’s happening on screen is somehow not real, and lends the film a dreamlike quality. The style itself makes the viewer so aware that what they’re seeing is a movie that it’s almost surprising that the characters don’t know they’re in a movie.
PIERCING'S frequent references to De Palma, Argento, Fulci, Bava, and others, serve as an homage to the glorious sleaze of the 70's and 80's. The references are overt and amusing, and while they might evoke the overeager mimicry of a film student, it’s clear that the director comes from a loving, reverent place. As a fan of said sleaze, I was giddy every time I caught a glimpse of the aforementioned filmmakers’ distinct styles.
Now, on to the film itself. If you haven’t watched, spoilers are to follow but are mostly limited to the first act. If anything I’ve said above interests you, go watch the damn movie, then read.
PIERCING begins with a pseudo-helicopter shot of the miniature skyscrapers.
We zero-in on an apartment and quickly meet Reed (played by Christopher Abbott) as he watches over his newborn daughter and runs an icepick across the infant’s cheek. For some, this may be an uncomfortable scene, but I appreciated its boldness. It’s an unpleasant image that’s highly evocative and serves to foreshadow the grotesquery to come.
It becomes clear that Reed has a dire need to stab something, or someone, with an icepick. This is evidenced by his own infant telling him so, in the first of a number of hallucinatory scenes that are some of the movie’s highlights. Reed narrates the requirements of his victim: a prostitute who must also speak English so he can understand her screams.
Reed quickly kisses his wife and infant goodbye and takes his murder plots to an upscale hotel, where he meticulously runs through his plans in one of the film’s most powerful scenes.
We watch Reed (in a fantastic feat of physical acting by Abbott) mime through his plan, as he drugs his victim, drags her to the bathtub, stabs her with an icepick, then dismembers her. All his mimed actions are accompanied by the sound of the actions, such that we hear the squelch of the stabs and the grinding of the bone saw, followed by the oozes and rips as he mock-removes her head.
We next meet the prostitute he’s hired to be his victim. Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) wakes up from a halcyon binge to a call from her pimp, letting her know she’s got a job. She packs a duffel-bag of sex toys and catches a cab. Her cab ride is presented alongside Reed’s plotting, in a moment pure De Palma style split-screen that left me wide-eyed and giddy.
Jackie and Reed meet, and we quickly learn that Jackie isn’t all there. We get a sense that she’s not just uninterested in her work as an escort, but in human interaction altogether. After an extremely awkward introduction, followed by an even more awkward attempt at seduction. Jackie asks to take a shower and disappears into the bathroom of Reed’s hotel room.
What follows is a gruesome comedy of errors, filled with blood, gore, and weirdness. PIERCING takes you on a wild ride that will leave you saying “what the fuck” throughout.
I wouldn’t want to spoil more than that. Although I can say for sure that the film holds up even knowing beat-for-beat what happens, I can almost guarantee that the film works better as a blind watch, or an introduction to the book, followed by a rewatch afterwards.
Abbott and Wasikowska do a fantastic job embodying the leads. As Reed, Abbott expertly portrays a socially abysmal weirdo. His affect and manner almost recall Christian Bale in American Psycho, but without a shred of the charisma.
Wasikowska plays a different type of lunatic. Her body language, tone, and mannerisms are straight out of the uncanny valley, and the effect resonates. She moves like she doesn’t belong in her skin, mumbles half her lines, and at times hefts herself around like she’s carrying an invisible weight.
Together they have an excellent dynamic. Throughout the film, both characters play cat-and-mouse like roles, however, being a comedy of errors, neither character seems sure which is the cat and which is the mouse.
I omitted something when I described PIERCING-the-book. Murakami’s novel spends far, far more time in the characters heads than it does on their actions. Both characters, on the page and the screen, suffer from dire mental illness. Thus, the motivations range from baffling, demented, to outright psychotic.
Pesce’s adaptation reproduces the novel almost exactly, but he omits a great deal of the internal dialogue that both characters entertain. This leaves us with is a movie about maniacs pursuing vaguely defined, self-important goals, doing absolutely insane things to achieve them.
A lot of the themes are lost between the novel and the film. Fear of fatherhood slips away, as does the plight of the businessman, and only minimal commentary on sex-work remains. Instead, Pesce has created a movie about roles of power in a relationship, and of dominance and submission.
As the film progresses, we see Reed and Jackie swap roles. Reed begins as a cold psychopath ready to control and murder Jackie, but he degrades into a sniveling whelp. Jackie, on the other hand, constantly sucks agency away from Reed, and by the end becomes the dominant force in their relationship. Although in ways, it’s a divergence from the novel, it feels completely natural and fits into the strange world that Pesce has crafted out of Murakami’s source material.
For some, the utter surreality of the film will be a turn-off. For others (including yours truly), it’ll be a joy to watch. Even knowing what to expect, the leads portray their insane roles so well that I found myself constantly on edge, wondering what the hell will happen next. Reed and Jackie are unstable power-kegs that could explode at any moment.
For me, I loved the utilization of absolutely bizarre flashbacks, some great phone-call gags, random acts of violence, and bizarre, but understandable character decisions. It misses some of the wry humor of the novel, but replaces it with new elements of visual weirdness, and introduces new humor while exploring the same themes.
Should you watch PIERCING? I’d sure-as-hell say so. While it’s not a perfect movie, it’s a hell of a ride, and if you’re anything like me, I suspect you’ll learn to love its weirdness.
It’s a feat of style, with good performances to back it up. The soundtrack is clever, even if it’s out of place at times. The make-up effects are impressively gross, and it’s got some flawed but still awesome CGI.
Pesce is slated to direct the reboot of the American adaptation of THE GRUDGE(Ju-on). Who knows what that’ll look like, but I’m excited to see what he does with it. It’s a series with a lot of bizarre mythology, and I think Pesce’s style-followed-by-substance approach will fit it excellently.