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Piercing (Fantastic Fest review)

Piercing (Fantastic Fest review)
8 10

PLOT: A man who intends to murder a prostitute finds the act isn't as easy as anticipated.

REVIEW: Two years ago, at my first Fantastic Fest, I found the movie that shook me the most was THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a harrowing and bleak exercise in minimalist horror that stuck with me like a distressing memory. A lot of young directors who display a modicum of talent swiftly get labeled as "ones to watch," but in this case I was obliged to agree. Nicolas Pesce's name was immediately jotted down in my brain; if a first-time director in his 20s could unnerve me so much, there was certainly a good chance his follow-up would be very worthy of attention.

Happily, there is no sophomore slump to report, although folks hoping for something as macabre as EYES will not get that here. Trading in his debut's overwhelmingly grim atmosphere for something bouncier and, dare I say, more playful - but no less disturbing at its core - PIERCING is a twisty and twisted dark comedy about two very messed up people who may or may not fall in love while they may or may not be trying to kill each another.

For you genuine weirdos out there, this will be the romantic comedy you've been waiting for. I don't want to give the impression it's funny, exactly, but I could feel myself smiling often while PIERCING slyly turned icky scenarios into amusing ones. To say PIERCING goes bizarre and unexpected places would be an understatement. It doesn't start off so funny; it starts off with a father pointing an ice pick at his baby. This man, Reed (Christopher Abbott), is quite clearly off his rocker, and while packing for a "business trip" away from wife and (unharmed) baby, we see him fill his bag with a variety of unhealthy items. If that doesn't sell us on his unbalance, his voice-over does: Reed plans on luring a prostitute into his hotel room and murdering her.

Why does he want to do such a thing? We learn a bit about that, but the movie is more concerned with the immediacy of the situation than filling us in too much on Reed's unhealthy backstory. On the surface he's a meek, nervous nobody, fairly forgettable save for the uncomfortable way he stares into nothingness. He finds his prostitute, fairly unremarkable in her own right; Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) is cute, slight and wholly unassuming. Their initial meeting is awkward, but that's nothing compared to how the rest of their evening will play out.

I won't spoil the events that follow, although you won't be given any plaudits for guessing that things don't go the way Reed has planned. Jackie turns out to have some kinks (or maybe they're needs) of her own; not unlike Reed, she too has an unhealthy fetish for sharp objects. Whether she's a sadist or masochist seems to depend on the situation, but let's just say you should keep her away from the kitchen. No question, PIERCING is certainly the most appropriate title for this frequently cringe-inducing valentine.

Yes, it's kind of a romantic story at its core, as these two deeply damaged people work to figure out who they're dealing with. Utilizing a play-like structure where only two characters ever inhabit the screen, the film engages us by bringing us close to two people who are not easy to be around but absolutely compliment each other, thus making them a very compelling pair. It's impressive the way Pesce gets us to find sweet moments in between the queasy ones; we're even rooting for things to work out when, rationally, we should be telling one or both of them to run far away.

At 82 minutes the movie ridiculously to-the-point, and I'd argue it could have used a slightly more powerful ending (its conclusion is so abrupt I was thrown off, taken out of the moment). That said, as a person who usually thinks most every movie is too long, there's something quite satisfying about a movie that cuts out all the fat and puts on the table exactly what it needs you to ingest. One standout, aside from Pesce's steady hand at the helm, is an eclectic soundtrack that boasts the likes of Goblin. It might be my favorite soundtrack of the year; it would make Quentin Tarantino proud. 

Both main actors are perfectly suited to their roles. Waskikowska continues to make a career out of playing seemingly vulnerable yet potentially very dangerous women, so she and Jackie are an ideal match. Abbott has the unenviable task of making Reed someone we end up caring about, or, short of that, someone we're interested in following. For all intents and purposes an unappealing man, Reed is given a slightly tragic aura thanks to Abbott's believably uneasy interpretation of him. Together, Wasikowska and Abbott make beautifully odd music together.

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