Kinkiness and menace merge in Nicolas Pesce’s weird, unnerving but ultimately unsatisfying adaptation of Ryû Murakami 1994 novel. “Piercing” manages to maintain an air of dry, dark humor that makes its ghoulish plot somewhat palatable, but in the end the essential nihilism overwhelms it.
The antihero, if one can call him that, is Reed (Christopher Abbott), whom we meet as he contemplates stabbing his infant daughter with an ice pick; the child tells him (in an obviously poor effect) that he knows what he has to do—and he does. He packs up his case for a “business trip,” the purpose of which is actually to pick up a prostitute and kill her savagely, thus working out his indisposition, which, as we will later learn, stems from terrible events in his past.
He checks into a hotel that might be a lesser cousin of the Overlook and goes through his plans obsessively. He’ll order a girl from an escort service, overpower and kill her, and then dismember the body. He practices nervously, step by step, in preparation for his victim’s arrival.
The girl who arrives is Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), who proves to be no less needy than Reed—and in an equally unusual sense. What transpires is a cat-and-mouse game that shifts perspective repeatedly, winding up in Jackie’s apartment. In the process, of course, we will learn the reasons behind her compulsions too.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the twists of the tale Pesce has fashioned from Murakami’s book, including one that comes up at the very end to suggest that the story is hardly over. They are not particularly surprising, to tell the truth; what’s more interesting are the choices Reed and Jackie make. Each of them could decide to end their dance at many times. That they don’t indicates that survival isn’t the main force driving them. But what is?
Pesce, however, isn’t nearly as interested in exploring that as in presenting an unsettling portrait, always sinister, sometimes grim and often nastily funny, of the two circling one another. Abbott and Wasikowska prove entirely in tune with that purpose. He convincingly depicts an ordinary-looking fellow at once driven, uncertain and, finally, destructive in every sense. With her mop-head hairdo and flair for the impetuous, she comes across as a mite goofy but definitely dangerous. The only other cast member of consequence is Reed’s wife—a person who, as plated by Laia Costa, plays a larger part in what’s happening that might at first seem the case.
One of the most notable aspects of “Piercing” is its look, which Pesce has obviously taken great pains to construct. Working with production designer Alan Lampert, costumer Whitney Adams and cinematographer Zachary Galler, he’s created a deliberately artificial ambience that extends to the closing credits, where the buildings are obviously decorative models. When you add a penchant for split screens, Sofia Subercaseaux’s languid editing and the overpowering (but uncredited) music score to the mix, you’re left with a true oddity, but one that demonstrates that being distinctive isn’t necessarily enough.