The film’s debt to horror is clear, though it aspires to something more tangibly human. Director Nicholas Pesce of horror-drama The Eyes of my Mother (2016) invokes the spirit of the Italian giallo here, particularly those popularised by Dario Argento. As well as sharing their expressionistic lighting and grisly subject-matter, he utilises the title tracks from Argento’s Profondo Roso (1977) and Tenebrae (1980). These scores lend the film a sense of momentum, danger and playfulness which, when used in combination with Brian De Palma-inspired split-screen, create a knowing sense of gothic doom. Pesce also shares Alfred Hitchcock’s fascination with those dark eddies of human desire that hide behind the most inoffensive façade: Abbot’s boyish looks and stoic demeanour for example (“You’re so calm and dignified” Jackie coos) and the opening and closing scenes’ presentation of endless, anonymising columns of high-rise apartments.
Although inspired by the giallo and Hitchcock, Piercing lets us into Reed’s troubled headspace from the start rather than attempt to pull the rug from under us later. Opening with a close-up of his infant child, an ice-pick hovering a few inches over its face, we see Reed anxiously wrestling with a desire to kill. His character’s unreliability as a guarantor of reality is confirmed moments later – his murderous impulse having passed – when the baby looks at him and gruffly intones, “You know what you have to do, right?” He intuits the solution to be hiring and murdering a prostitute, noting reflectively that “she has to be English. Her terror must be in English”. This confusion between real and imagined however casts the characters interactions in ambiguity, making it difficult to judge how events will unfold; so that, instead of a third-act revelation, we are drawn into a slippery psycho-drama between Reed and Jackie, one in which Jackie proves herself to be equally unpredictable.
For a film with such dark subject-matter (murder, sadomasochism, psychosis) the film has a surprisingly light touch. This is partly due to Pesce’s retro style, reflected in the opening’s nostalgic titles and appropriated VHS flicker on the screen. But largely it stems from Abbot and Wasikowska, whose portrayals of these two troubled individuals sparkle intermittently with humanity and tenderness. Reed is rendered sympathetic, with his puppy dog expression and brown, reticent eyes. He seems to understand his capitulation to this base impulse as a necessary evil, confessing to Jackie that “I need to get it out of my system”. Wasikowska meanwhile is a cocktail of sweet, sadistic and playful who unabashedly commits self-harm. Though they constantly misread each other’s desire, both suspect the other of having a death-wish. Reed admits as much in his notebook, stating that if his victim were to fight back and hurt him, “maybe that wouldn’t be so bad”. But, just as you find yourself engrossed by this fatal meeting of dark minds, the title flashes up abruptly, signalling the end of the film’s slim runtime. While it’s a shame to end the movie with so much unresolved, it also feels appropriate; suggesting the realisation and satisfaction of their desires are to remain eternally frustrated.
A delicate balance of violence and grace, psychosis and tenderness, Piercing begins to explore interesting themes about human relationships, but eventually is only as incisive as a flesh wound. It feels like the tantalising appetiser before the main course: beautifully-presented, full of flavour, but leaving you hungry for more.
Piercing is out now in selected cinemas.
Words by Daniel Pateman @Hopeandglory.
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