This short, sharp picture (81minutes) offers an intriguing collision of talents known for other things – writer-director Nicolas Pesce is coming of the stylish psycho-horror pastiche The Eyes of My Mother, the source material is a novel by Ryu Murakami (author of Audition) and the stars are Christopher Abbott, who offered edgy support in It Comes at Night (and is currently playing Yossarian in the TV miniseries of Catch-22) and Mia Wasikowska, moving out of high-budget corset roles to try something a little edgier. Like several other recent films – Perfect Thread, The Duke of Burgundy – it works through a strange, dangerous relationship that may also be a dark mirror of the perfect coupling which is always a rom-com project.
Seemingly mild-mannered new father Reed (Abbott) feels such an overpowering urge to kill his baby with an icepick that he sets out to commit a ‘safe’ murder, with the real or imagined collusion of his wife (Laia Costa) and even the baby (who speaks a single hilarious line like the fox in Antichrist). He checks into a hotel, which clearly has a very special service, and waits. The girl he’s booked is running late, so he’s asked if a substitute who can get to him inside an hour will do and in stumbles Jackie (Wasikowska), who has aroused herself from torpor and may have her own wires crossed, turning up to play dom rather than sub … and, since no one will be able to get the reversal of Audition out of their mind, it might do Reed well to wonder just what the frail-seeming strange blonde he’s let into his room and life is capable of. Yes, that icepick does get reached for.
This could work as a two-character play, and Abbott and Wasikowska are wonderfully paired, offering understated, unsettling, deeply ‘off’ characters who are also relatable, foul-up schlubs. Reed methodically rehearses murder, almost getting his rocks off stabbing empty air while Jackie goes feyly weird, and throws off his timing, threatening to spoil his experience, until a terrific punchline that could have come from one of those Roald Dahl short stories they wouldn’t let Alfred Hitchcock do on TV. After the lush, location-based black and white gothic of The Eyes of My Mother, this goes for a very different style – almost matter-of-fact, sit-com staging (it may be the coincidence of me seeing it on the day Neil Simon died, but it would make a splendid dark addition to his Plaza Suite) with no exteriors except for elaborate cardboard models of buildings complete with fine detailing (here, I felt an echo of Anomalisa).
It’s accompanied by musical selections from classic giallo scores, with memorable Goblin/Simonetti licks from Deep Red and Tenebrae a wholesale plundering of Bruno Nicolai’s score for The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. We also get that very rare thing in diegetic music (last heard in The Royal Tenenbaums) where two songs that might come from a single album (Gene Pitney hits) play under a scene. These tracks underscore a delicate, properly Sadeian punishment — the fact that the agony last longer than two whole songs is at once amusing and terrifying. Piercing might well be a hard sell – and I can only imagine how many leading men must have read the first page and decided to pass – but I think it’s better even than Pesce’s first film and marks him out as someone to pay attention to.