Piercing is a beautiful nightmare from the mind of Nicolas Pesce. In the tradition of great giallo films of the ‘70s, it’s ripped from the pages of yellowed pulp fiction of indeterminate age and origin. This is the avant-garde paperback that feels dangerous and propulsive to the touch, scraps of noir and heavy plotting found in a dingy used bookstore that smells of old paper and regret.
There’s something special about Piercing. It nails the ‘70s Italian crime feeling from the start. It’s a world of De Palma split screens, yellow dial telephones and old record players scratching out anachronistic tunes. We’re wincing from the word go when our lead holds an icepick to his baby, who through some bedeviled inspiration, tells him he needs to go fulfill his bloodlust and murder a prostitute.
The crux of the story then is a mind game between man and prostitute. She’s prone to self-harm: is she playing right into his game, a willing sacrifice for his worst impulses? We must question everything.
Piercing is not a very nice movie. It was introduced at the festival as a “punch to the face” and when the plot spins outward, contracting and hallucinating toward unknown ends, it achieves immeasurable anxiety sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.
I feel I’ve been pretty hardened by cinema. That I’ve seen a lot and feel generally unaffected and have a calm cool for horror. But I was retching and sweating by Piercing’s finale. It affected me deeply and left me reeling, slightly shaking, like the bad acid trip it was. This is tough, provocative cinema with a razor-sharp edge.
I want to give significant credit to Mia Wasikowska, who treats the predator and prey game with absolute intensity herein. She plays perfectly to the camera and is almost impossible to read. When someone is acting this well, it seems so effortless as to no longer suggest they are acting at all, and Wasikowska achieves this transcendent state. Christopher Abbott performs admirably as her counterpart, an unsure assassin with a complex series of problems, and while it starts as a power trip film he leans very hard into vulnerability by the ending.
Piercing isn’t an inherently likable film. It is hard to trust—nay, you should not trust it very much, if at all. That is part of its pulp beauty then. It’s sure to attract a cult following at some point. I’m not even sure that I like it at all, but it must be the most memorable film of the festival, and it has affected me the most. Once you overcome Piercing’s baggy midsection, it has immense payoffs and will haunt your dreams for the foreseeable future.