Reed (Christopher Abbott) hovers over his baby with an ice pick and ponders his next move. He knows he has to get something out of his system, but he also knows that it must involve violence, and he does not really want to hurt the infant if he can help it, yet who knows what he might do if he cannot channel some kind of release? He makes up his mind to go to a hotel room, invite a prostitute there, ask her if it is permissible to tie her up and once she is bound he can murder her and cut her body into pieces so that he can dispose of it. Indeed, he is a looking forward to the chopping and saw as much as he is the homicide. And anyway, he has the baby's permission.
He also has his wife's permission, she being Mona, played by Laia Costa, best known for starring in the title role of one-take epic Victoria, but she was not precisely the star of Piercing, as while Abbott was top-billed, the plum role went to Mia Wasikowska who played the prostitute, Jackie. It may not sound much of a part going by the first fifteen minutes, but as an actress who had exhibited a willingness to go the extra mile in her performances, your suspicions that she did not sign up for this project to essay the pathetic victim would be correct. If anyone was pathetic here, it was the would-be murderer, and that was entirely as it should be, no matter the influences it toyed with.
Those influences were the giallos of the nineteen-seventies, where the most stylish of the genre saw killings conducted with a near-fetishistic glee as the high points of their thriller plots, but this was not based on source material that any Italian filmmaker of that era would have touched: Japanese literature. Literature that was no less obsessive over its characters' low points, it had to be said, and with an air of perverse sexuality to properly pique the supposedly prim Japanese interest, in this case a nineties novel by Ryu Murakami that had been a bestseller in his homeland, and might have more reasonably have been a candidate for filming by that nation's extreme cinema brigade.
New Yorker Nicolas Pesce had drawn some attention with his debut, The Eyes of My Mother, and for some this was a keenly awaited follow-up, but while his sense of style was present, the apparent misogyny in the premise was not going to attract many converts. The notion that you were about to watch a man systematically murder a young woman definitely seemed like a narrative from another era, and one in which a giallo would have happily allowed him to get away with, unless it wanted him to be caught to posit a demeanour of morality - and not every seventies thriller or horror did. Indeed, even hearing the concept would have been enough to turn off all but the most dedicated shocker buff, the transgressive film freaks who appreciated envelopes pushed as far as unreasonably possible.
That's not to say there was no humour at work in Piercing, although most was of the heavily ironic variety and not likely to have you rolling on the floor, much of it in fact was downright weird, as befitting the pattern this unfolded. Once Reed has rehearsed how this is going to play out in his mind, he has Jackie arrive and they make awkward conversation (and she even more awkwardly simulates masturbation), after which she retires, embarrassed, to the bathroom. After she has been in there a couple of minutes, Reed asks her if she is all right, pretty rich coming from someone who plans to off her, and walks in on the woman stabbing her thigh with a pair of scissors. So it seems she is as unbalanced as he is, but you don't know the half of it as the night drags on, Reed becoming more frustrated despite reassurances on the phone from Mona, and the giallo soundtrack themes grow oppressive (especially if you preferred, say, the theme from Tenebrae on the film of that name, thank you very much). Yes, the style was there, the performances were dedicated, but it was hard to like once you boiled it down to its grotesque commentary on sour modern relationships.