Director Marc Turtletaub’s new drama, Puzzle, tells the story of Agnes, a shy homemaker who takes life by the reins after years of wasting away. This mid-life coming-of-age-tale features a pair of outstanding lead performances and examines the sly forces that cause us to put aside our dreams.
Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is a stay-at-home mom and not much else. She lives to serve her blue-collar husband (David Denman), two sons, and god – she’s churchy! Agnes suffers from some type of mental illness, but the film never reveals what it is – it seems like obsessive-compulsive behaviour and anxiety. Agnes’ issues aren’t crippling but they show up in ways that hamper daily life. Which isn’t an issue since Agnes has no ambitions. But one simple gift changes her life.
On her birthday, Agnes receives an iPhone and a 1000-piece puzzle. And it’s the puzzle that tickles her fancy. She becomes a puzzle-solving Terminator, slapping together a 1000-piece puzzle twice in one afternoon. Most importantly, working on puzzles calms her busy mind. While shopping for new puzzles she stumbles into the world of puzzle competitions. Robert (Irrfan Khan), a local puzzle competition champion, posts an ad seeking a partner for an upcoming event. Agnes responds to the ad and impresses Robert with her natural gifts. As the pair train for their upcoming competition, Agnes finally steps outside of her comfort zone.
Agnes, an introvert, tiptoes through life like a church mouse. Though Macdonald’s face is an expressive emotional canvas, she plays Agnes as still, silent, and pensive. Dustin O’Halloran’s gentle piano score sets the mood for plenty of Puzzle’s intimate scenes. Segments inside Agnes’ home subtly convey her physical and emotional confinement. Dull lighting and the production design’s drab and shabby look make exterior shots feel like breaths of fresh air. Each time Agnes ventures out presents a powerful visual contrast to her home life. When Agnes travels into the city, DOP Chris Norr captures the organized mayhem of New York City’s bustling streets. It’s the perfect way to visualize how alien the outside world appears to Agnes, a closed-in suburban housewife.
Puzzle’s screenwriters, Polly Mann and Oren Moverman, tell a straight-forward story about finding oneself. Puzzle’s only twist is that it doesn’t spend much time on the film’s most compelling hook: the puzzling. The only puzzle this movie cares about is the human condition. The literal putting together of puzzles serves as a backdrop for exploring Agnes’ emotional well-being. If you go into Puzzle expecting it to play out closer to something like a spelling bee movie, you’ll be disappointed.
It takes a pair of charismatic actors to hold your interest while they piece together puzzles. And you could do a lot worse than Macdonald and Khan. Macdonald is at her best in roles where she plays a lamb amongst lions. She exudes an innocent quality that makes her easy to root for. She starts the film stifled by her needy husband and held back by her social awkwardness. Agnes doesn’t come off as cold or unpleasant even though she lacks social graces. Macdonald makes Agnes’ evolution believable. By the end of the film, Agnes doesn’t feel like a brand new woman. Instead, she comes across as a wisened version of her old self. It’s a subtle distinction, one that lesser movies don’t make.
Irrfan Khan is one of those great actors who enters a scene and outshines everyone onscreen. Robert is charming and insightful with a soulfulness that makes him the perfect person to bring Agnes out of her shell. Even though Agnes goes through life surrounded by family and friends, nobody truly sees her. Robert picks up on this right away and makes Agnes feel seen. The tricky part here is Robert not coming across like he is praying on Agnes’ naiveté. Khan brings a world-weary tenderness to the role and Robert feels as much in need of a connection as Agnes. Together they form an intriguing pair. I won’t spoil it here, but Robert and Agnes share an empathetic exchange that ranks amongst my favourite movie moments of the year.
Puzzle is a good film that could have been really good if it wasn’t so uneven. It’s predictable, features uninspired supporting characters, and it often strays towards movie-of-the-week territory. If someone told me they didn’t like Puzzle because it’s a cliché self-discovery movie I would understand. But there’s also a lot to enjoy. There are the two strong leads with great chemistry, bits of clever screenwriting, and sly visual metaphors. If someone told me they loved this movie because of Agnes’ inspiring story, I would understand that too. Puzzle teeter-totters between clever and playing it too safe. But, there’s a deeper level to this film that won me over.
Mental illness isn’t always a wrecking ball that swings down from out of nowhere and obliterates you. In some cases, it’s a slow black rot that spends years eating away at your sense of self. Through Agnes, Puzzle honestly depicts the insidious way mental illness slithers into peoples’ lives, cripples their spirit, and blots out their ambitions. Theses internal conflicts drive people to seek out whatever steadies their frantic minds. For some it’s sex, for other’s its drugs, and for people like Agnes and myself, it’s piecing together puzzles.
Puzzle is impressive in how low-key it plays the subtle, long-term effects of Agnes’ mental health issues. And it warmed my heart as I watched Agnes, at 40-something, break free from the shackles of her self-doubt. Even before Agnes attended a puzzle competition, her courage, poise, and new-found ambition already made her my champion.