Film Review – Puzzle
Puzzle is a deep, emotional character study that takes us on a great journey with a fuzzy ending that doesn’t diminish how we got there. Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is a long-time housewife in a blue collar family whose life is pretty well defined. She calmly puts up decorations and cooks food for a birthday party, politely asks her husband Louie (David Denman) if he is having fun, and diligently picks up a broken plate while the party is going on till her husband tells her it can wait. Only when the cake is brought out do we find out that this is her birthday party. Further detail is provided when she opens her presents after the party is over and one of them is a cell phone from her younger son Gabe (Austin Abrams), who can’t believe that she isn’t interested in getting apps and is embarrassed by his mom’s lack of broader knowledge. With these moments we begin to find out who Agnes is and more importantly how she is perceived, a good but simple person.
Agnes then takes out another gift someone gave her, a jigsaw puzzle. After doing some chores around the house she is able to put it together, then later on a whim she does it again and times herself. After getting some more puzzles and finding out that she is still fast she partners up for a puzzle contest with Robert (Irrfan Khan), a bored wealthy inventor who has his own issues. They meet twice a week to practice while Agnes lies to her family in order to make the time. The realization by Agnes about her ability with puzzles changes her but not in the way these “hidden talents in unusual places movies” usually do. Instead her being into puzzles is almost secondary to her discovering that she feels frustrated by the monotony of her life. She still loves everyone in her family and doesn’t want them gone, but she wants a type of growth that is not easy to define or to find in almost anyone who recognizes that there must be something else. For her it is puzzles and yet even she questions why that is when really there is no point to them. The contest is not there as a moment of self discovery but as a goal to allow these characters, Agnes and Robert, to spend time together and let her do a lot of self-actualizing.
Why any of this works is because Kelly Macdonald does a fantastic job drawing us into this woman, who by all accounts is as average as can be, and giving her a life. Macdonald can project a sense of sadness in the briefest of looks that isn’t all-consuming but just slightly melancholy. When she does everyday tasks we see the weight of what this is actually doing to her, not that it isn’t important or even difficult, but because she has done it before. A scene before she breaks down and cries had me almost crying even when nothing really sad is happening, because she was able to project this despondency so well.
Agnes’s time with Robert is the impetus for a lot of her changing but is ironically not the most interesting part of the film. They share a passion for puzzles and enjoy seeing the world through the other’s eyes. Robert watches news on natural disasters and is very jaded but has mostly accepted where he is in his life. She wants something else in life and has such a genuineness to her that he finds her interesting. It give us a nice interplay without overdoing it. While some of the feelings seemed rushed, the way we see what these two have been looking for in life makes it feel real. We are not given enough time to make us feel invested in them as a couple, but rather as great catalysts for changes they each make.
Instead an interesting by-product of Agnes’s self-discovery is seeing her relationship with her older son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), who works in his dad’s garage and is miserable knowing he is not good at his job. He is not college-bound like her son Gabe and knows his limitations but seeing his mom simply being more confident gives him some sense of worth and a desire to try being good at something. It is a small detour that fits beautifully into the narrative of Agnes’s journey. But really the centerpiece to all this is what goes on with her and her husband Louie.
Louie is never portrayed as a bad man. While he may not understand what his wife is going through it is in part because he is very happy with the way his life is. He likes his routine and loves his wife very deeply but because he is so into the way things are he doesn’t know how to respond to things being different even in tiny ways. Even when he does make adjustments it is not always done with the best care. Yet we are treated to moments of genuine affection between the two that lets us know what they have as a couple even when things are changing around them. A particularly great scene that shows why he is sympathetic yet lacking is when she asks if he ever thinks about what would happen if he never met her. He quite quickly says no, because he gives thanks every day that she is in his life and you believe him, yet she wants to talk about this idea just to explore it intellectually and he cannot fathom that. It makes him a more compelling character because, while we see why things aren’t working, it is clear that this are not cut and dried issues they are dealing with for the most part.
The last quarter of the film doesn’t quite work as well with what we have been through for most of the film. It starts to impose some stereotypes on Louie that the film has previously avoided and are unwanted and make events feel more predictable. The ending is not bad but is not a completely emotionally satisfying moment. Not that things need to be neatly wrapped up but where it ends doesn’t quite make the impact the film thinks it does.
While this did deflate me somewhat the journey we are given is still beautifully crafted with some very talented actors doing some great emotional work while avoiding ninety-nine percent of the traditional ideas this kind of story usually does so that I couldn’t help being impressed. Director Marc Turtletaub is able to give his actors time and room to grow, allowing for a natural storytelling that is exciting and unexpected. Life changes can happen in the smallest moments and these do not need to be major events, they just need to matter to the individual and that is a wonderful message to convey.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director Marc Turtletaub from SIFF 2018.