2019, R, 81 min. Directed by Nicolas Pesce. Starring Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 1, 2019

A businessman goes away for the week and hires a prostitute. He thinks he knows what he wants, thinks it's so extreme and hardcore, but it turns out she's even kinkier than him. How far is he prepared to go? It seems like a fairly predictable story, but when his far-from-vanilla taste involves murder and she's into self-mutilation, that's a fast track to unexpected places.

As adapted by director Pesce from the novel of the same name by Japanese master of transgression Ryū Murakami (Audition), this claustrophobic psychosexual meltdown is transferred and translated from Tokyo to an abstract Western city – the architecture pointedly artificial, the interiors that kind of utilitarian abstraction of design that only a hotel can achieve. It's no-when and everyplace as Reed (Abbott) waits for Jackie (Wasikowska), rehearsing his lines and prepping his murder kit. A dash of the Son of Sam's madness mixed with the innocuous charm of Ted Bundy appears as he play-acts what he believes – or hopes – will be a murder that will somehow placate his impulses (in one of the film's best moments of dark humor, Pesce overdubs his dry run with splattering and saw sounds that leave little to the twisted imagination).

Reed's motivations are clear from moment one, and it's an intriguing subversion of classic slasher tropes that it's the victim, not the killer, who is hard to read. Yet that's because everything is retold from his perspective: Wasikowska's Jackie, in her expensive lingerie and fur coat, is his dream girl, until he starts losing control of the scenario. His grasp on reality is as slippery as an ice pick covered in blood, so it's hard to tell if what she says is real or his self-justifying fantasies. However, Pesce (who previously explored a female killer's psyche in The Eyes of My Mother) is not afraid of female violence either, so when the latex glove is finally on the other hand and Jackie starts to control the narrative and the passion, then it's a hard right turn into competing pathologies.

Pushing the concepts of consensual BDSM to their very furthest extremes, Pesce's curious, stylized, and perversely erotic romance will inevitably make the audience flinch. Melding underground horror with arthouse intimacy, rarely has the question "Can these crazy kids make it work?" had a more perturbing answer. No one gets out of here without a few scars: But then again, maybe that's what they really want.

For an interview with the director, read "A Piercing Conversation With Nicolas Pesce," Sept. 20, 2018.

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Piercing, Nicolas Pesce, Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa

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