Photo: Universal Studios

The last few months have been a bonanza for those with a sick sense of humor. First came Lars von Trier’s serial-killer saga The House That Jack Built, which at one point spends several hilarious minutes observing Matt Dillon’s psychopath as he struggles to talk his way into a potential victim’s home, ineptly impersonating a police officer and then, when that doesn’t work, an insurance agent. His intentions are horrific, but his actions are buffoonish, and there’s pitch-black comedy in the disjunction.

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That’s likewise true—for a while, at least—of Piercing, whose nerdy protagonist, Reed (Christopher Abbott), has decided to murder a random sex worker in a hotel room, for reasons that aren’t as clear in the movie as they are in the Ryû Murakami novel from which it’s adapted. (Another of Murakami’s books inspired Takashi Miike’s Audition, to give you a sense of the twisted mind at work here.) We see Reed methodically rehearsing the crime, making dull small talk with an imaginary woman before suddenly throttling her nonexistent throat and pretending to drag her limp body into the bathroom. He even repeatedly knocks himself unconscious in order to determine the precise efficacy of chloroform. Abbott emphasizes this would-be killer’s earnest awkwardness, treating his preparations as if they were a wallflower’s efforts to spruce himself up for a big date. By the time Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) arrives, it’s already abundantly clear that things are unlikely to go as smoothly as he’d hoped.

This antic approach to nightmarish behavior represents a significant change of pace for writer-director Nicolas Pesce, whose debut feature, The Eyes Of My Mother, was anything but funny. Somber black-and-white master shots have been replaced with gaudy splashes of color, De Palma-style split screens, and peppy lounge music supplemented by cues taken from classic giallo films—most notably, Goblin’s unforgettable score for Deep Red. The playfulness works beautifully, even though it bears little resemblance to Murakami’s deep dive into two badly broken psyches. In the novel, Kawashima (the main character’s original name) is battling an inexplicable impulse to stab his newborn child with an ice pick, and hopes to sublimate that urge by murdering someone else; there’s brief voice-over narration to that effect in the film, but the character’s anguish and self-loathing barely register here. Likewise, Jackie, who’s been mostly deprived of the painful backstory that Murakami gave her forebear, comes across onscreen as a vaguely dangerous cipher, embodied by Wasikowska’s unnerving grin. Re-conceiving the tone was a smart move on Pesce’s part—a faithful, ultra-grim adaptation would likely have been unbearable.

Trouble is, he loses his nerve. Or maybe he just ran out of ideas. Following a humdinger of a plot twist, revealing Jackie to be every bit as fucked-up as Reed, Piercing turns into a sadistic, violent two-hander, more closely approximating the soberly sickening source material. This abrupt shift feels inorganic and dissatisfying, with Jackie’s actions in particular coming across as random grotesquerie. (Warning to needle-phobics: This film shows an unsimulated nipple piercing in close-up. For some people, that may be harder to endure than any amount of fake gore.) Pesce still delivers a handful of demented jolts in the movie’s back half, along with inspired use of Michael Johnson’s minor schmaltz-rock hit “Bluer Than Blue,” and watching Abbott and Wasikowska spar remains a constant pleasure. But the perverse promise of those early sequences, which suggested American Psycho with Roger Greenberg replacing Patrick Bateman, never quite gets realized. The movie turns ugly, but the ugliness hasn’t been earned.

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