'Pieces of Her' Is a Testament to Toni Collette's Understated Brilliance

Created by Charlotte Stoudt

Starring Toni Collette, Jessica Barden, Joe Dempsie, Bella Heathcote, Joe Dempsie

Photo courtesy of Netflix

BY Alisha MughalPublished Mar 14, 2022

In the final episode of political thriller Pieces of Her, Bella Heathcote's Andy Oliver says to her mother Laura (Toni Collette), "It sounds like you don't even care," in response to Laura's stoic, unemotional face, which in turn is a response to the knowledge that the show's raging antagonist wants to kill her. For the first time in the season's eight episodes, a character finally remarks upon the coolness with which Collette portrays Laura — a coolness that seems to broach an ironic comedy that never receives its punchline. One watches Laura move through each episode straight-faced, enduring all the physical and psychological violence the plot throws her way with an unnerving calm. On the face of it, it might seem as though this is bad acting or a poorly written character, but we're talking about Toni Collette here — things can't be as they seem. 

In Pieces of Her, Colette delivers what ostensibly is an unemotive performance that really is a pitch-perfect character study in control and restraint, ultimately anchored by Collette in a preternaturally cunning understanding of her character: Laura's lack of a sense of self, mixed with a laboriously cultivated desire to please others. In other words, watch Pieces of Her for the captivating and refreshingly original mystery, stay for Collette's spellbinding performance, which shows us yet again why she is one of the most interesting actors working today.    

Based on a book by crime writer Karin Slaughter and created and produced by Charlotte Stoudt, the show follows 30-year-old Andy as she discovers and reckons with her mother Laura's buried past, while Laura tries to figure out who she is beneath a mess of identities. The show begins with mother and daughter at a restaurant in Belle Isle, GA, celebrating Andy's birthday. Laura works as an occupational therapist while Andy is a 911 operator. The first few minutes of the show are sunny and innocuous, scanning almost as a melodramatic drama about the two women's lives together as Andy tries to figure out what she would like to do with her life in the aftermath of Laura's battle with breast cancer. But this sleepy drama is interrupted the afternoon of Andy's birthday at the Crab Shack, when a gunman opens fire at a woman who days earlier spurned his advances. Laura, terrified as the gunman advances toward Andy after his initial victims, throws herself in front of her daughter. As the gunman pulls a knife and lunges toward her, Laura blocks the knife with her hand and impressively wields his weapon against him by slitting his throat with the knife's tip that stabs through her own hand. 

The incident at the Crab Shack makes national news and Laura is deemed a local hero, much to Laura's displeasure. As two men across the country learn of Laura's face and whereabouts, Andy learns that her mother is not who she says she is, has been hiding major parts of herself for the past thirty years. People from as high up as the American government emerge from the woodwork, some to kill Laura or kidnap her and some to protect her. As Andy tries to figure out exactly what is going on and why people want to kill her mother, Laura tries to put a stop to the violence to keep her daughter safe. 

Punctuating the mother-daughter drama in the present are glimpses of Laura's adolescence. Young Laura is played by Jessica Barden, who carries Collette's stoic portrayal brilliantly. The thrill of the plot is undeniable. Glimpses of the past reveal Laura's encounter with the enigmatic figure of Nick, played perfectly by Joe Dempsie as an enthralling leader of a leftist terrorist organization whose aim it is difficult to outline without giving out spoilers. The show deals with the Regan administration's public health failures, the blood on the hands of a big pharmaceutical company (owned by Laura's father), and the moral murkiness of the Democratic party, in addition to dealing with the idea of what makes a good mother, and the ramifications of a loss of a sense of self.

It emerges that Laura has been playing various roles for the majority of her life, even in Belle Isle. Young Laura takes pains to be who her father needs her to be, proper and "good," while older Laura performs a new identity for the American government. Laura's whole life has been for others. Accordingly, throughout the show this is a character who continuously fights to be free, because she has been suffocating under the weight of so many masks. The issue is that, because she has been playing various identities all her life, she doesn't really know who she is. It is from this visceral lack of a sense of self that Collette plays Laura's coolness; it's eerie but makes logical sense in terms of development.

Laura's muted demeanour is interesting and stunningly carried by both Collette and Barden. We are shown how she was raised to please other, and she then cultivated it in herself as a way to survive against her father, and then so that she might survive in a society that cannot know about her true identity. Hence Laura's unnerving stoicism, an eerie calmness that doesn't seem to be warranted by her physical situations.

This restraint glimmers undeniably to the fore in Collette's minute, almost balletic and deft movements in moments of chaos (think Angelina Jolie in By the Sea) — movements she cannot unlearn because they are as swift and easy as breathing, because she has always been moving in ways that will be read by others as good or acceptable. In moments of stillness, when the camera closes in on Laura's face, as she stands still staring out the window or above her kitchen counter delicately but precisely making a cocktail, we see a violent frustration roiling within Collette's Laura's eyes. It is the kind of anger that could punch through walls, but her body is still; it's anger that her body is too afraid to follow through with because she has been trained to be an obedient woman.

On the face of it, it seems as though Collette as Laura is under-acting, portraying her character poorly, with not enough emotion. But really the opposite is true. Colette expertly portrays this character's stuntedness, as she drowns in the undertow of so many identities to the extent she doesn't know who she really is. Collette's Laura is a woman who only knows she wants freedom from her situation, as opposed to freedom to be in the world. It takes far more skill to restrain than it does to explode in melodramatic flourishes. 

Where Laura is restraint personified, Andy is an effusion of all her emotions all at once — whatever she feels, whether it be lust for an attractive man or dizzying confusion at the mystery of her mother's life, Andy vocalizes it through her voice and body, sometimes screaming other times weeping — aspects that will make her annoying to some viewers — emerge as perfect complements to Collette's Laura. Heathcote does a superb job as this bright flash of a woman who interacts with her surroundings with the whole of herself and turns out to be, ultimately, a testament of Laura's goodness, an anchor in Laura's various identities and a guide that might show Laura who she really is. The show does an excellent job of creating a unique and original mother-daughter dynamic with Laura and Andy. Barden, Colette and Heathcote do these characters justice so that they seem lived in, human.

Though it is a compelling and enveloping political thriller, Pieces of Her is also, ultimately, about what it looks like for women to discover themselves, and how, when not given the freedom to do this, they can unravel into dust. Colette's strength as an actor is on full display in Pieces of Her and really takes the show from a well-written but still middling thriller to a must-watch.

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