Sydney Film Festival Review: Piercing (USA, 2018) is a sadistic screwball macabre comedy with two fantastic lead performances

Before I start this review, it has to be said that this writer has a sick and depraved sense of humour. So stepping in to watch this sadistic horror/comedy film Piercing for Sydney Film Festival 2018, my expectations were sky-high.

The feature has been adapted from a novel by acclaimed author Ryu Murakami, who is famous for novels that get into the sinister nature of the human condition in the backdrop of Japan. With novels like Audition (which was later adapted by director Takashi Miike), In the Miso Soup and Coin Locker Babies (adapted in to a South Korean film, Coin Locker Girl, by director Han Jun-hee), we’re venturing into some very dark territory.

And we have the two talented leads. Christopher Abbott, who’s most well-known for his sweet, tame role in the TV series, Girls, and was most recently in the divisive horror film, Trey Edward Shult‘s It Comes At Night, steps into a role that is uncharted territory for him. Whereas fellow Australian actress Mia Wasikowska has played subtly unhinged roles before like in Park Chan-wook‘s Stoker, Jim Jarmusch‘s Only Lovers Left Alive and Gus Van Sant‘s Restless.

And the film is directed by Nicolas Pesce, who made the strikingly atmospheric monochrome horror film The Eyes of My Mother, and his next project is directing the reboot of The Grudge, starring personal favourite Andrea Riseborough. So with all this talent of riches and great source material to adapt, will Piercing be a worthwhile endeavour or will it be another example of the sophomore slump?

The film starts off with a startling image of Reed (Christopher Abbott) staring at his newborn son, whilst gripping an ice-pick. With one of the many demented visions Reed has in the film, the newborn son speaks to him, saying “You know what we have to do, right?”

With the support of his unknowing wife, Mona (Laia Costa), he goes on a business trip. Reed checks into a swanky hotel and arranges for a call girl to come over for him to stage the perfect murder, in order to satiate his inner urges.

With the murder all planned out intricately in his mind, complete with miming out the actions with sound effects of limbs being mutilated and so on, it will be an event that is surely to succeed. Assuming that the call girl doesn’t go off the rails. Enter Jackie, played by Mia Wasikowska.

What begins as a potentially grisly serial killer film becomes an increasingly demented macabre screwball comedy. With a mix of genres and tones, it takes very assured hands from the cast and crew to walk the tightrope with perfect balance and thankfully, they all pull it off with aplomb.

As expected, director Nicolas Pesce brings his stylistic aesthetic to the film and it brings an enjoyably surreal and dream-like atmosphere, reaching towards a neo-retro sensibility. It comes complete with lovingly art-directed interiors (the skyscrapers housing these rooms are miniatures), distinct visuals captured by cinematographer Zack Galler, sharp editing by Sofia Subercaseaux (whose work is on another SFF 2018 entry, Sebastian Silva‘s Tyrel) and great choices in the soundtrack (mostly compositions from past films by Bruno Nicolai and rock band Goblin) and they both add to the audience immersion of what they can handle when the film will comes up with its bonkers details.

And what the film comes up with is brutal violence, psychological mind-games and pitch-black macabre humour; all exceptionally well-executed, pun intended. One of those details include a spider that looks like it comes out of the mind of of 80’s David Cronenberg. And the humour is of the nature that is sure to elicit awkward fits of laughter, reminiscent of David Slade‘s Hard Candy or Mitchell Lichtenstein‘s Teeth, both horror films where women turn the tables on men. Major props must go to Daniel Sheppard and the sound department, as the sound mix adds punch to the violence, as well as the dark sense of humour i.e. the scene where Reed acts out his actions.

The storytelling is also noteworthy due to how Pesce tries to screw with his audience and their expectations. First of all, Wasikowska’s character is never depicted as a victim, which makes one question who has the real position of power, making the film a fun game of cat-and-mouse. Second of all, the film shows what its intent is from the very opening shot, mixing comedy with grisly details convincingly as well as providing a litmus test as to whether the audience can handle what is to come. And last of all is the ending, which is so off-kilter and yet so well-timed in how abrupt it is, it comes off as surprisingly chippy.

Yet none of these things would work without the talented leads to keep the story grounded. Laia Costa is likable in a small supporting role as Reed’s wife, who’s more supporting of Reed than one would think. Christopher Abbott does a great job with imbuing Reed with much-needed facets of humanity, making him a character that the audience can empathize with, however much that may be. Think Patrick Bateman, but with much lower self-esteem.

And there’s Mia Wasikowska, who is a captivating firecracker of a woman as Jackie. Usually, female characters in a film such as this (or in many film genres, for that matter) are there to make the male leading characters more enlightened; basically supporting them for what they are going through. Or how female characters in horror films are always in peril and never really any sense of agency or autonomy in the story. In the case of Piercing, that never happens, as Jackie not only has the same amount of oddities and quirks, but she may be more unhinged than Reed is. And on that level, Wasikowska delivers in what may be her most fun performance yet.

Overall, Piercing is a sadistically fun time at the movies with its violent proclivities, its macabre sense of humour, its increasingly insane storytelling chops and of course, director Nicolas Pesce and leads Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska guiding the ship. Highly recommended to those with strong stomachs and those with sick and depraved minds, like yours truly.

Review Score: FOUR ICE PICKS (OUT OF FIVE)

Piercing is screening at, and was reviewed as part of, Sydney Film Festival. Head HERE for more details.