ST. LOUIS — Life is full of loss and surprise, but few of those events change your life as permanently as the loss of a child at birth. It's the kind of thing that can not only level a woman, but her family as well.
We meet Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) right before this happens to them, seeing their genuine happiness at a baby shower and how they dote on each other constantly. Each is confident and good at their jobs, and love each other at home. They don't owe life chips at the poker table, and have a lovely home. It's like seeing a house before the bomb goes off, serenity being ambushed by the harshest of heartbreaks. I won't go into detail on how or what happens. That would take a lot of the pain of watching "Pieces of a Woman" away and believe me, pain is part of the process of watching this movie unfold. Accept it at the front door.
But I appreciated how Hungary director Kornel Mundruczo didn't drench the rest of the film in melodrama and erratic subplots. Along with Ansuman Bhagat and Kata Weber's potent script and Benjamin Loeb's cinematography, Mundruczo allows ordinary life to play out in front of our eyes. Big plot points come and go like tomorrow would, and that gives the film a sinister weight as the lives of Martha and Sean change drastically.
The lead performances are terrific. Lived-in with just enough restraint to resist chewing scenery, Kirby and LaBeouf avoid over-acting and just sink their teeth into these people. There's a chilly air around Martha as she determines the next step in her life, and that includes the memory and physical remains of her lost child. The one deadly thing about tragedy is that it opens all the previously locked cupboards and pantries in a couple's life. The skeletons and flaws come out to play, and it becomes a mosh pit of sorrow. I liked how Kirby, LaBeouf, and Mundruczo navigated those cinematic waters, avoiding shortcuts and just allowing us to see these people.
Here's the thing. This is a real sad picture, but the way the subject matter is handled, and how actors work through the material, makes it a worthy endeavor to take in. Not all art can be entertaining and make you feel good. Sometimes, a painting can reveal all the sadness in the world, but that doesn't mean walk away and turn on something nicer. All it does is make you appreciate your life, which is most likely more together than Martha and Sean's world is.
"Pieces of a Woman" sure made me appreciate Kirby as an actress so much more. While she hangs around well in testosterone man-strength displays such as "Hobbs and Shaw" and "Mission: Impossible-Fallout," Martha allows the actress to rip into a juicy role and show us what she can do as an actress. The only green screen here exists in her head, so it's a lights out performance that isn't showy or overly active. It's just 100% real, or feels that way.
Mundruczo's film has a deep bench, including solid supporting work from Benny Safdie (one part of the dynamic writer-director combo, along with Josh), Sarah Snook (you may know her from HBO's "Succession"), and Iliza Shlesinger (so funny in the Mark Wahlberg Netflix film, "Spenser Confidential"). It's an eclectic group.
LaBeouf follows up 2019's "Peanut Butter Falcon" and "Honey Boy" with another fine supporting performance. More often than not, just like Kirby, he keeps his emotions internal and just lets us wonder about their identity. While his far too consistent real life issues have placed the actor in legal hot water again, "Pieces of a Woman" proves the man is talented and can hold his own with the best.
Speaking of best, every movie is better with Ellen Burstyn involved. As Martha's strict yet caring mother, Burstyn doesn't get the same amount of screen time as the two leads, but gives a strong performance that helps the second half of the film fly easier. Her scenes with LaBeouf show how far he has come, and how much she still has left.
"Pieces of a Woman" runs just over two hours and will beat you to your knees by the credits, but as I sat there sad and exhausted from a fictional yet highly realistic screenplay, there was a satisfaction that settled in. I was happy I took this journey, because it's not a creepy horror flick. This happens to women every day and it's an unfortunate event that can slice like a hammer, so you can't see it coming. This film decides to champion, instead of feeling sorry for, the woman and her family who have to wade through the brush of loss.
There's authenticity in grief when it's done well and not for Oscars. Kirby should end up with a nomination, but she went about it the right way. There's no makeup or prosthetic on her face. No extra glam or cover. Just her beautiful, strong, and sincere face going through hell. That's courage.
Bottom Line: Mundruczo's "Pieces of a Woman" is a courageous film that flies high on sincere performances, patient storytelling, and handling a blunt force trauma event with real care.