David Cronenbeg’s 2005 film “A History of Violence” entwines itself around a nasty little premise. Tom Stall (played by Viggo Mortenson) is a family man, living in a small town, when one day, a couple of gruff outsiders try to rob his diner. In an instant, the quiet and calm everyman suddenly morphs into a lethal killer. His heroics save lives and earn a bit of media attention, but rather than savor his moment in the sun, Tom is concerned. His wife, Edie (Maria Bello), wonders why — until a gangster (Ed Harris) comes calling, alleging that Tom isn’t Tom at all, but a hitman named Joey Cusack who disappeared years ago under suspicious circumstances.
From there, Edie’s perception of Tom starts to shift, and the film’s shifts with her. Her husband’s once serene identity is streaked in danger; a danger that only grows as his past comes to light. Could Tom really be Joey? Did the cafe owner she married start out as a professional assassin? No matter his name, can she trust him now, with the children? What about their time together is real, and what has been strictly for show? Can a person ever change that drastically — from someone capable of ferocious violence into someone who would never choose to inflict such pain again?
Now, I doubt there’s an intended overlap between the Netflix audience for “Pieces of Her” — a mother-daughter mystery-thriller designed for aimless 30-somethings seeking nothing more than a vicarious escape — but the parallels are hard to ignore, even if the show ultimately should be. “Pieces of Her” takes a similar premise, stretches it across eight hours, largely avoids the wrenching character drama of a child learning her mother is an entirely different person, and makes it all… nice. Very nice. Too nice, for a series that never justifies its disproportionately dark start, let alone breaches the complicated scars a shared history of lies can inflict.
As far as 30th birthdays go, Andy’s isn’t ideal. Having left her life in the Big Apple to help her mother Laura (Toni Collette) through chemotherapy, Andy (Bella Heathcote) is living in the guest house and working as a 9-1-1 operator. Even though her mom works as a physical therapist, their adopted Southern town of Belle Isle is mainly a retirement community, which means there isn’t much of a social scene, let alone many fun folks Andy’s age. So after biking home from her night shift, where she doodles on napkins while callers prattle on about home-invading raccoons, Andy’s big birthday plans consist of brunch with her mom at the local diner.
But before Laura can finish her maternal lecture on planning for the future, Andy’s day goes from bad to worse. A creepy dude pulls a gun and shoots another customer (who we’re later informed is his ex-girlfriend). He then kills her mother and a stranger trying to call for help, before turning on Andy. Still in her uniform, the gunman thinks she’s a police officer and demands she try to stop him. But it’s Laura who stands up. She talks him down, explaining that his “suicide by cop” plan won’t work since her daughter doesn’t have a gun. Predictably, this only enrages the murderer and, out of bullets, he tries to stab Laura. Shockingly, she stops his blade with her open palm… and then slits his throat with her free hand.
The scene itself is horrific, filled with spurting bloodshed and gruesome close-ups. But it’s the dead-eyed look on Laura’s face when she takes a man’s life that lingers. Andy watches it all from the ground, staring at her mother with confusion — an expression soon replicated, again and again, as the tragedy makes local and then national news, and Laura gets more and more squeamish. Soon, her fears are proven out when strange men come looking for her, and she sends Andy on the run for her own protection. As the birthday girl flees town, literally stopping her getaway vehicle to stare at the “Welcome to Belle Isle” sign in her rear-view mirror, it’s clear Andy’s “go nowhere” life is finally headed somewhere.
Mark Rogers / Netflix
Emphasizing the potential for growth in Andy’s situation over its harrowing tragedy is just one way “Pieces of Her” remains safely optimistic and rooted in its younger star’s perspective. Along the way, she learns plenty more about her mother’s past, but I won’t be spoiling those developments here. “Pieces of Her” is only sustainable as a silly diversion; a piece of pulp given the sheen of prestige by its creators and cast (including Collette, Jessica Barden, and Terry O’Quinn) yet devoted to its twists.
Adapted by Charlotte Stoudt (“House of Cards,” “Homeland”) from Karin Slaughter’s 2018 book, the series disperses tiny bits of intel as Andy drives and drives (and drives). Director Minkie Spiro (a TV veteran from “Better Call Saul” to “Skins,” and a DGA nominee for “Fosse/Verdon”) spends plenty of time in mirrors, capturing reflections that emphasize Laura and Andy’s fractured identities; her action scenes always have a strong sense of place; her world-building always grounded, even when its goings-on spin off in all directions. Eventually, the narrative pivots to flashback-heavy final episodes to fully explain the Oliver family backstory. Not everything clicks, nor does Season 1 shut the door on continuing the story, but at least there’s enough closure to walk away.
Collette does what she can with her pissed-off mystery woman — sharing a number of piercing expressions that call to mind more haunting, consistently engaging performances — but this isn’t her most indelible portrayal of an anguished mother. Repeated revelations are prioritized over engaging with each issue, and almost every revelation protects Laura’s protagonist status, keeping her nice enough to root for while refusing to invest in enough sincere, messy emotion. Choices like these leave the actors (and audience) in the lurch. When the truth doesn’t come out until the end, there’s not enough time for mother and daughter to address the shifting bedrock of their relationship.
In its waning minutes, “Pieces of Her” reveals shards of what could’ve been: how a parent hiding her full identity from their kid can influence distorted identities later on; how honesty, no matter how difficult, can provide as much closure as pain; how suppressing a history of violence isn’t the same as hoping for a present without it. If any of that sounds compelling, seek out Cronenberg’s classic. “Pieces of Her” is too content to coast on, well, pieces.
“Pieces of Her” premieres Friday, March 4 on Netflix. All eight episodes will be made available at once.