Vanessa Kirby roughhoused in action movies with Tom Cruise and Dwayne Johnson, and she impressed enough for an Emmy nomination as the queen’s sister on Netflix’s “The Crown.” It’s her remarkable, quietly furious turn in “Pieces of a Woman,” however, that proves her mettle as an Oscar-caliber talent.
It helps that she has a showcase as well-crafted and moving as director Kornél Mundruczó’s family tragedy (★★★½ out of four; rated R; streaming Thursday on Netflix), a superbly acted story about a Boston couple’s imploding relationship and how we lose (and sometimes find) ourselves after loss.
From a harrowing and unbelievably tense 24-minute birthing scene to a blistering mother-daughter meltdown, “Pieces of a Woman” has an unmistakably visceral quality that pervades the drama, even as tonal inconsistencies – and Shia LaBeouf’s off-screen issues – slightly diminish its power.
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Martha (Kirby), with her partner, Sean (LaBeouf), is determined to give birth to their little girl at home. When Martha’s water breaks and their chosen midwife is already involved in another labor, a backup named Eva (Molly Parker) is called in for the delivery, a roller coaster of emotions that goes from the happiness of seeing a baby born to it all going fatally awry in heartbreaking fashion.
In the aftermath, Eva faces civil and criminal charges, a wounded Sean slides back into old habits of drugs and alcohol, but Martha throws up a wall to deal with her grief. She isolates herself emotionally from Sean as well as her family, including her meddling wealthy mom Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn). Martha wrestles with postpartum physical symptoms and choices that no parent would ever want to face, from packing up an unneeded nursery to decisions about what to do with the baby’s body. “Why are you trying to disappear my kid?” the increasingly unstable Sean asks Martha as she begins to go her own way, including fostering a new interest in sprouting apple seeds and late-night club outings.
Kirby masterfully navigates all these stages of unimaginable circumstance. Even though Martha seems cool (to the point of chilly), it’s clear there’s something roiling within her. When it all boils over, there’s understandable rage, which Kirby pulls off exceedingly well in a heartfelt and touching performance. Mundruczó’s filmmaking helps: In many scenes, even when the action might not be on the main characters per se, he keeps the camera trained to them (usually Martha) to show how they’re doing throughout. That’s key especially in the exquisite birthing sequence – filmed as one take – that’ll leave even the strongest viewer an emotionally exhausted heap.
Alongside Kirby, Burstyn is also outstanding as Martha’s mom, who has a complicated relationship with Sean and definite thoughts about how her daughter should think and feel about things. The latter leads to a blowup at a get-together between the two where Burstyn’s and Kirby’s characters unleash their long-suppressed feelings. (Seriously, we need to see both of these women on Oscar night.)
“Pieces of a Woman” gives LaBeouf one of his best roles as well, playing a completely wrecked would-be dad who builds bridges yet watches his life fall down around him. Unfortunately, considering recent abuse allegations against him, a few scenes are noticeably uncomfortable to watch, like when Sean forces himself sexually on Martha and a scene in which he violently chucks an exercise ball at her.
The movie also randomly turns into an overdone courtroom drama for a time, which leads to an important character moment but little else. Not that anything really takes away from Kirby’s career-defining effort, one that will undoubtedly rocket her into the awards season stratosphere and might necessitate clearing off some shelf space.