New Normal January 20, 2021
On Pieces of a Woman, Sound of Metal, and Impetigore
happens next, but when the action jumps a month ahead and a glassy-eyed Martha is returning to work prematurely, we can take a guess.
Kirby gives a remarkable performance in Pieces of a Woman; she plunges into Martha’s sea of heartbreak and disappears. LaBeouf is also good — he effectively conjoins his trademark bullishness with a sense of profound and aching loneliness. But given the recent allegations of abuse against him, his presence is uncomfortable, especially during an otherwise well-realized scene in the middle of the film where Sean and Martha try to be intimate again. In that scene, he completely misreads his partner's needs, to the point of outright aggression.
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó, from a script by Kata Wéber, Pieces of a Woman covers eight months in this couple’s lives. The storytelling is elliptical — almost vignette-like. At its best, Pieces of a Woman is an insightful, devastating movie about a kind of grief rarely acting as a movie’s bedrock. The feature is particularly adept at showing the pain that can live inside long stretches of silence, and how disharmonious grieving styles can create an accidental interpersonal friction. Martha can’t bring herself to so much as listen to music; Sean has a habit of trying to break the tension by asking for a “penny for your thoughts,” to which Martha will blankly reply, “none.” (Mundruczó and Wéber are also a couple in real life; the film draws from a similar experience they’d had.) But at its worst, certain narrative developments in Pieces of Woman feel placed to give someone in the ensemble something showy to do, or unnecessarily belabor an already cogent point — problems that bring some remoteness and artifice to a movie clearly designed to be unrelentingly intimate and real.
Instances of familial strife among Martha’s clan come to a contrived breaking point at a holiday dinner loaded with tear-and-snot-wetted monologues. They’d feel more like Oscar-clip contenders if the actors offering them didn’t so dedicatedly put their backs into it. Toward the end of the film, when legal proceedings against Eva are nearing their end (who is at “fault” for the baby’s death has become a national news story), the movie is very conspicuously working to externalize the internal dialogue Martha has been having with herself when she’s being cross-examined on the stand. It feels more on the nose than it’s meant to. Some biblical visual motifs evolve into an epilogue that feels more tacked-on than earned, even if it does denote something close to a personal wholeness — something we certainly want Martha to feel again. When the screen flashes with a title card announcing a new month throughout the movie, the visual frequently backing it is that of an under-construction bridge nearing completion.
Pieces of a Woman doesn’t have any interest in familiarizing us with these characters outside of their tragedy, or in fleshing out psychological details that would give them further dimension. We don’t know how Sean and Martha met (they come from different classes: she’s an executive from a well-to-do family, and he’s a construction worker with a working-class background) or what their relationship was like in its happiest days. Sean and Martha’s interests aren’t examined; we don’t even know what Martha does for a living. The movie goes to great lengths to give us a sense of Martha’s relationship with her family — the cause of much anguish is her domineering mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn, giving what might be one of her best performances), and how her ideas of how Martha should be grieving clash. But we don’t know anything at all about Sean’s. (And even though Martha and her family troubles are given a lot of screen time, it’s unclear whether their dynamic was always this fractured, or if it was mostly simpatico before and is now just being pushed to its limits.)
With just a few scenes defining a certain month in the movie’s timeline, the suggestion is that these are the key simulacra to give a satisfactory sense of Martha’s sorrow and how she comes to terms with it. But with characterological nuance missing from many of these methodically placed scenes, distance is generated. We can feel Sean and Martha’s newfound agony in our gut, but we know little of the pain they’d already been living with.
Vanessa Kirby in 2021's Pieces of a Woman.
couple, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf), as they endure a home birth at their Boston apartment — a process Martha decided she wanted to try after discovering she was pregnant. Although the couple is disappointed to hear that their preferred midwife isn’t available (she’s assisting someone else when Martha’s contractions begin), everything seems to be in good hands with her serene, experienced replacement, Eva (Molly Parker). But Eva’s assuredness soon starts wavering when she notices that the baby’s heartbeat isn’t quite where it should be. Then it unravels entirely when, shortly after Martha has seemingly successfully delivered the child, this irregularity hasn’t improved. Sean calls an ambulance for backup. The film doesn’t explicitly tell us what
ithin the first half an hour of Pieces of a Woman, excitement for what the future promises gives way to despair. The opening of the film follows a
uben (Riz Ahmed), the protagonist of Sound of Metal, lives in a trailer with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). It doubles as a tour bus. This couple is also the duo that makes up Blackgammon, a rock
group famous enough to have multiple magazine covers to plaster their wheeled home’s walls but not enough to feasibly take an extended vacation. They barely make it by, but it’s a satisfying living — doing what they love with the person they love. Early on in Sound of Metal, though, the rug is pulled out from beneath them — more so Ruben. While setting up a merch table before a performance, all Ruben can hear, suddenly, is a high-pitched ringing. And it doesn't stop.
What’s happening? Ruben goes through with the evening’s concert but struggles to get through it. He’s more dependent on Lou’s body language than the melodies to which he’s ostensibly giving rhythm. When he wakes up the next morning, he discovers he hasn’t slept his problem away. He hums to himself, showers, makes a smoothie — hoping something will wake his eardrums up. But static silence dominates. When he goes to the doctor to get his ears checked, no good news is offered. What he’s experiencing isn’t a temporary side effect of a punishing tour. His hearing is irreversibly worsening — it could either be genetic or brought on by years of incessant touring, he's told — and silence is at this point inexorable. Ruben has the option to get implants, but the operation costs between $40,000 and $80,000. And even then, the result isn’t going to usher in a complete return to normalcy.
Lou is adamant that the tour cease. It was clear to her this must happen likely from the time Ruben first revealed to her after a show that he couldn’t hear anything. Also worried about her boyfriend’s sobriety (he’s been off heroin for the last four years — as long as they’ve been together), Lou helps get him a spot in a community group for deaf recovering addicts that temporarily requires its participants to cut off contact with the rest of the world. (Members all stay together in a remote compound.) Ruben at first pushes back. He thinks anything not involving Lou pretending nothing has changed isn’t supportive. But then he relents. You can tread the waters of denial for so long.
The early scenes of this affecting movie hit us hard. The sound design, by Nicolas Becker, mimics exactly — or what we imagine mimics exactly — what Ruben is hearing, and the effect is unnerving. We really feel the scary suddenness of his new reality, and for the first half of the film it’s like we’ve been thrown off a boat without a life jacket. (I don’t know if Sound of Metal would impact us quite as much without Becker’s intuitive work: one imagines these scenes without their murky, empathy-driving sound and it’s clear there isn’t any way they would have the same viscera-rattling effect on us if to unfold conventionally.)
The successive portions of the movie dedicated to Ruben’s time with the support group, which among many things helps him learn sign language, successfully maintain a tricky-to-maintain poignance: compassionately capturing the anxiety of a new, unexpected chapter of one's life
without unwittingly portraying deafness as a life-ruining handicap. (One of the film’s best performances is given by Paul Raci, who plays the group’s leader with a skillful balance of patience, pragmatism, and tender-heartedness.) The last section of Sound of Metal sees Ruben reunite with Lou, and this stretch offers some of the movie's falsest notes: it teeters toward staginess. The narrative takes us to a place that a little awkwardly reinforces how much about Ruben’s life has changed — it’s almost too neat.
I wished the screenplay, co-written by director Darius Marder and his brother, Abraham, did more to establish an inner life and background for Ruben — get a better sense of his relationship to music and offer more about his past aside from his troubles with substances and the brief detail that growing up he saw himself as a descendent of the character Jeff Goldblum played in 1986's The Fly. The sound design, and Ahmed’s impassioned performance, slant toward the masterful; other parts of the movie aren't entirely complementary to that.
t the beginning of Impetigore (2020), a young tollgate worker, Maya (Tara Basro), is attacked at work by a man wielding a machete. He seems to know something — and clearly is not a fan of
something — about her past. (“We don’t want what your family left behind,” he seethes just before trying to strike her.) Maya survives — the police arrive at the nick of time with guns blazing — and tries to move on. But after a period of financial struggle, she thinks again of that creepily invoked early childhood. Maya was raised until she was about 5 in a sparsely populated village by her wealthy late aunt and uncle. She wonders if there is something there that could pull her out of her instability. Maybe an inheritance; maybe the bequeathal of the giant house she once called home.
Maya grabs her best friend and roommate, Dini (Marissa Anita, very funny as a compulsive talker), and they head to the village — a place remote enough to not be listed on Google Maps. (Maya had to call a government office ahead of time to confirm the coordinates.) Together they find out that the answers have a few more layers than they had reasonably anticipated — not pleasant ones, either. For reasons the movie will go into detail later on, the village has actually long been under the spell (or something like one) of a deadly curse apparently started by Maya’s relatives. The townspeople believe the only way it can be broken is if their heir — Maya — is killed, and in a fashion so elaborate you can’t help but chuckle in disbelief when you hear what they have to do confirmed. That man attacked her at the tollgate because no one expected her to visit her hometown. Lucky them.
Aside from the introductory attempted-murder scene, which has the shot-of-adrenaline quality of a particularly inspired short film, writer-director Joko Anwar (2017’s Satan’s Slaves) lets the action slowly burn. Once the narrative pivots to the deadly — confirming the speculation of us and the leads that something is amiss — we’re almost readier to let out a sigh of relief than a scream. Impetigore is a friendlier companion piece to something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973), another movie where intruding on an insular community proves nightmarish. The parallel is solidified by how Maya departs from the hellscape — in the back of a dirty truck, screaming and googly-eyed.
Though a little diminished during the last act, when Anwar throws in expository, stylistically dull flashback sequences that work to make sure we’re very clear on the movie’s background, this is an enthralling survival thriller where you can practically feel the humidity and the overactive bugs flying about. It's also a well-realized show of how passed-down trauma can affect not just the individual but a community. The diabolical last shot confirms that when a wound is big enough it can’t fully heal.
Pieces of a Woman: B-
Sound of Metal: B+