★ / ★★★★
Nicolas Pesce’s bizarre dark comedy-thriller “Piercing” is a work that exists solely to test the patience. Its premise exhibits some promise: a man who wishes to murder his infant child books a hotel, goes on a business trip, and concocts a plan to kill a prostitute instead. However, both the writing and execution do not function on a high enough level and so what results is a project that barely passes as student film. And, yes, it is yet another one of those movies that demonizes S&M for the sake of shock value. I was nauseated by its desperation to provide twists rather than to tell a good story that just happens to have twists.
Christopher Abbott is one of the most underrated actors working today and there are moments when he elevates the subpar screenplay almost singlehandedly. He is a great communicator using only his eyes. Even a blink—when it is used and how long it lasts—is calculated. Observe closely as Reed looks at his baby and contemplates stabbing her. Instead of turning his eyes blank, as he would during some moments he shares with the prostitute he hires later (Mia Wasikowska), there is humanity present as the man—the father—wrestles against the monster that is consuming him slowly but surely. On occasion, Abbott makes a number of fresh choices under the weight of a limited screenplay; at times I wanted to scream at the movie for not committing hard enough—at the very least around the level of its lead.
Particularly annoying are the so-called teases. I found them to be unfunny and not the least bit entertaining. For instance, just when a character is about to get seriously hurt or maimed, the weapon is withdrawn and the person in power walks away as if to gloat. This trick is utilized so often that eventually we stop buying into the possibility that the situation would turn grim. As a thriller with some horror elements, particularly with a handful of its hallucinatory imagery, the diminishing returns proves deadly in terms of tension-building as well as providing a requisite catharsis. In the middle of it, I wondered how the director can expect for the audience to take his project seriously when he himself is not able to do the same.
Reed is shown to exhibit signs of a mental illness such as hearing voices that aren’t there and experiencing visual hallucinations. Coupled with these are quick flashbacks of an extremely traumatic childhood that likely contributed in sending his mental state over the edge. Neither the images nor the approach in tackling the subject of mental illness in relation to how such factors might impact behavior are particularly inspired. In fact, we are provided recycled clichés that executed much stronger and with more intent in other movies.
Skip “Piercing” and watch Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” instead. The latter picture expertly shows how laughter can be transformed into gasps of horror at a drop of a hat. We detest the Patrick Bateman character but we are enamored and fascinated by him, his mind, his lifestyle. He is such a curious subject that there comes a point where we do not wish for him to be captured by the authorities. We crave to explore the next layer of his deranged mind. By comparison, we wish for “Piercing” to be over far sooner than its relatively short running time of seventy-five minutes.