AFI Fest 2018: Piercing, by Scott Nye
Horror cinema is in an uncomfortable stage right now, too wrapped up in the structures of the past to convey quality to audiences of the present. We can say something that emulates a John Carpenter film is good, because we now have a framework for appreciating John Carpenter, but doubtlessly there is some modern practitioner we’re overlooking because he does not fit into such a framework, just as Carpenter did not in his time. This is all by way of saying I was rolling my eyes early on into Nicholas Pesce’s sophomore feature, as the aggressive giallo-infused score fills the theater to the vertically-scrolling bold-yellow-text film credits. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before split screen is introduced, and it seems Pesce is trying to pastiche his way into our nostalgic hearts.
Fortunately, Piercing gradually allows space for his own sick intuition, of which the film needs much. Based on a novel by Ryū Murakami (probably most popularly known for Audition), Piercing sets Reed (Christopher Abbott) off into the night, telling his wife (Laia Costa) he’s on a business trip when he’s really headed downtown to brutally kill a prostitute. After rehearsing his plan of attack numerous times, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) comes to his door clad in a bad fur coat and a skintight dress with her own designs on violence.
Or are they her plans? Are her words and actions in some way an expression of his? Or are his of hers? Pesce (who also wrote the screenplay) never elevates this stuff beyond tantalizing genre fare, but especially for a second feature, I’m not entirely convinced he has to. What remains is a thrilling head trip, a suspenseful gripper that kept me enthralled not especially because I didn’t know where it was going or any sudden plot turns, but simply for the way it unsettles the assumptions of what it is we’re watching at all. Reed and Jackie could be alive or dead or strangers or intimates or ghosts or figments of their own imaginations or simply expressions of some dark desire neither can put a finger on.
Shot in high-contrast colors with heavy key lighting by Zack Galler, and set in a series of ornately-curated upper-class spaces (kudos to production designer Alan Lambert and art director Naomi Munro), there’s hardly a moment in this film destined for our reality. Even Reed and Jackie are the very picture of their roles, he in neat button-down shirts and slightly-unkempt-but-once-slicked-back hair and she with the legs and seemingly-multiplying scars. Neither actor has a particular history with the controlled, almost robotic performances this setting would invite, and their unsettled, naturalistic instincts provide the right counterbalance to Pesce’s carefully-arranged frames. Abbott in particular always looks a little worried – of being caught? Of succeeding? Once again, we’re left with more mysteries than resolutions, and while a more mature filmmaker might bind that to a wider desire, it still makes for a damn entertaining 80 minutes.