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‘Piercing’ Film Review: Empty Psychosexual Thriller Goes Nowhere

The talents of Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska are wasted in this disappointing sophomore effort from Nicolas Pesce (”The Eyes of My Mother“)

To call writer-director Nicolas Pesce’s psychosexual thriller “Piercing” confounding would be an understatement. This sophomore effort from the filmmaker behind the gripping horror offering “The Eyes of My Mother” is as much an interesting subversion of how sex workers have been depicted in film as it is an off-putting erotic drama that falls apart at the seams.

That’s a shame, because “The Eyes of My Mother” is a provocative tale that pulls the audience in right away, and Christopher Abbot (“Vox Lux”) is currently one of our most underrated actors. He stars as a hitman named Reed, who’s so anxious about his next assignment that he’s up late the night before practicing on his sleeping baby. A mesmerizing scene early in the film shows him jabbing a knife up and down in the air, stopping just centimeters from her tiny body, while his wife Mona (Laia Costa, “Life Itself”) snoozes in a bed nearby.

He wants to get it right and even keeps meticulous notes in a journal (for instance, “the victim has to be a prostitute and speak English”), so he won’t screw up anything. But he’s literally sick to his stomach at the very thought of committing this act. That’s because Reed is a man of conflict: a professional villain who is intimidated by his own depravity.

Later in the film, he even calls Mona to get her advice on how to maintain control when his new target forces him to veer off his script after she cuts herself and he feels compelled to take her to the hospital. And the soft-spoken, equally appeasing Mona is quick to offer her thoughts, as well as a sweet reminder for him to wear a scarf because “you sound cold,” right before the two end the call with “I love you.”

It’s a scene caught in the middle of an urgent moment in Reed’s assignment, presumably to underscore how outside his element he is (though it is mentioned that he has had previous hits) and grounding him as a sympathetic character and family man whose wife also seems a part of the business. Though it’s a curious juxtaposition of two distinct male images, the contrast doesn’t incite any thoughtful extrapolation outside the fact that Reed occupies two separate spaces: having a family and being a killer, much like most assassin characters in film, even though other movies might not put such a fine point on it.

In the past, Pesce has proven to be a master at crafting an intersection of grimness and mundanity when it comes to portraying the family unit, but there is nothing particularly exciting about what he does here. What is clear is that Reed has reached an impasse with his morality. It fills him with equal amounts of fear and self-doubt and impacts how he carries out his latest assignment.

Enter Reed’s target: Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), a sex worker who’s a paradox herself, an assured and uncompromising young woman who realizes right away that her next client has ill intentions despite his need to cajole her in order to make himself feel less barbaric. Though the audience understands that Reed is crippled with dread, to Jackie, his prey, he is a malignant threat and should be treated as such. But she doesn’t run. She doesn’t scream. Instead, she meets him with the same casual manipulation that he aims to employ early on — luring him into an S&M tête-à-tête where he is the one stripped, gagged, beaten and tied, when it had been his plan to have her wind up that way.

It’s a compelling enough reversal of the longtime trope of female prostitute characters, whose victimization is so routine in film. Pesce flips that script entirely here, giving Jackie agency to reverse Reed’s elaborate and twisted plans on him. Even more chillingly, she does so with the same seductive ease that he uses in the beginning when he still thinks he is in control of the situation. For her, it’s offering him a bowl of soothing soup in her otherwise dark and sinister-looking apartment once the tables are turned and she’s got him in her clutches. Seriously, shout out to production designer Alan Lampert (“I Origins”), who makes Jackie’s pad look like an erotic lair/torture chamber.

This brings us to another point in the movie that doesn’t really go anywhere. While tied up and drugged, Reed has traumatic visions of an unknown woman having sex and getting mutilated that is never explained. And giving what we know about this hitman, could there be a masochistic pleasure that he gets out of Jackie retaliating against him like this? He could just as easily want to be punished, whether in a sexual or even more dangerous way, as much as he would like to feel helpless enough to comply to Jackie’s will.

Similarly, we don’t know whether Jackie is lonely and wants his attention, or whether she gets pleasure from torturing him. It could really go either way for both, as neither ever really discusses what’s going on in their heads. We don’t know enough about his or her motivations to be truly sure. It all leads to a cliffhanger ending —  under better circumstances, this sort of climax could be provocative, but by the finale of “Piercing,” it’s hard to care enough about either of these characters to desire any one conclusion over another. It makes Pesce’s disappointing follow-up not much more than an empty, uneven, dark mess just barely propped up by two intriguing lead performances.

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