Serial killers are, as always, in the public eye more through pop culture representations than real-life awareness. Sure, there are most likely ten or so active serial killers roaming the United States at this moment, but they’re not typically as interesting and visible as those on the screen. A new film (Extremely Wicked and a Whole Bunch of Other Words) is making the festival rounds starring Zac Efron as that prick Ted Bundy, and at the center of the conversation around it is the idea that Bundy’s murderous success was due in part to his cool, calm, and overall attractiveness. Not every wannabe killer wakes up in Bundy’s suave skin, though, and they all have to start somewhere. Piercing starts at the beginning as a young man makes a stab at murder, but what he discovers about himself is something all together different.
We first meet Reed (Christopher Abbott) standing over his newborn baby dangling an ice pick over the child’s face. The infant is indifferent, but before Reed can take things further he’s interrupted by his wife. He heads out the next day on a “business trip” with a singular goal — he’s going to murder a prostitute. His notebook is filled with meticulous plans and instructions, he practices by miming his way through the conversation, kill, and cleanup, and he even knocks himself out to test the effectiveness of his chosen drug. When Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) arrives at his fancy hotel room, though, the plan goes immediately awry. She goes off script from what he’s imagined and he soon finds her stabbing her own leg in a bloody act of self-harm. One thing leads to the next, and soon he’s bleeding too. Serial murder can be murder y’all.
Writer/director Nicolas Pesce follows up his acclaimed The Eyes of My Mother (2016) with an equally gorgeous but far more entertaining and affecting tale. Murder still sits at the center of it all, but Reed’s clearly expressed interests shift and grow over the course of the very brief running time into something fascinating and strangely affecting. It’s a love story, of sorts, about two people finding each other at the best possible time. Or worst… it’s really all about perspective.
The film is based on Ryû Murakami‘s novel, and fans of Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) — also adapted from one of Murakami’s books — may have a sense of the twisted psyches and manipulated flesh on display here, but this is a far more playful love story despite the bloodletting and pain. It’s a blackly humorous blend of self-determination and self-doubt that keeps viewers on equal alert with the characters. Both Reed and Jackie are damaged souls on a bumpy, clumsy path of discovery as they learn together how to best exorcise their respective demons. Abbott and Wasikowska are both pitch perfect in their respective efforts giving us characters whose actions may confound but whose humanity feels all too familiar.
While Pesce’s last film, his first, used black & white photography to capture its tone his latest embraces color and detail with wide eyes and open arms. The interiors are exquisite in their design and shot beautifully by cinematographer Zack Galler, and the acts of violence serve not only the narrative but also as small incisions into the film’s flawless and intentional style. Exteriors are seen only as high-rise backdrops, and they exist in the form of sharply crafted miniatures offering tiny windows into the hundreds of lives and secrets beyond our view. Pesce’s eye is matched by his ear as he eschews a traditional score for one made up of old songs and tracks from Italian genre films like Tenebre (1982), Tentacles (1977), and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972), and all of it works to create an intertwined sense of style and danger.
“The terror needs to be in English,” says one of Reed’s notebook instructions in reference to making sure he targets a victim whose screams he can understand, but it’s clear that the terror on display here is in an international language. We see it in the instruments of pain laid out before their use, in the various forms of inescapable restraints, and in the wide-eyed looks of recognition of what’s to come. For every dark turn, though — and there are many — the film finds light nearly as often up to and including an ending that suggests something as close to happiness as these two have ever known.
Piercing is a precise, funny, and macabre experience teasing inspirations as diverse as American Psycho (2000), Deep Red (1975), and David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) while being entirely its own thing. There’s really beauty here alongside the pain… and sometimes in the form of it.