A Mother Finds Solace, and More, in Jigsaw Puzzles.
DIRECTED BY MARC TURTLETAUB/2018
Puzzle, the new film by director Marc Turtletaub is certainly one. While known for being a producer of such films like Little Miss Sunshine, Marc has only directed one other film, Gods Behaving Badly. It played once and bombed. Now, he is opening what many could easily consider his debut film, and it is wonderful. It is the rare film that is both heartwarming and tragic, and should be looked for as it opens this weekend. Written by Oren Moverman (Love & Mercy, Time Out of Mind) and Polly Mann, and based on Natalia Smirnoff’s Argentinian film Rompecabezas, Puzzle is a film that meticulously builds, piece by piece, to reveal a portrait that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting, Brave, Goodbye Christopher Robin) plays Agnus, a quiet and submissive housewife who dotes on her husband Louie (David Denman; Logan Lucky, The Office) and their two sons. She continues to live in the home she was raised in, faithfully attends her catholic church, and lives a simple life without the frivolities of life, such as smartphones and the like. While Louie runs a local garage, Agnus spends the day grocery shopping, preparing the family meal, as well as any church related activity she is involved in. Her life is very predictable and safe. She even has memorized Louie’s morning ritual of asking for five more minutes when the alarm goes off, able to mouth his words to the second, as she has it all timed. Her sons, however, are more of the modern world, buying her an iPhone for her birthday. She can’t possibly see a need for it, but accepts it anyway.
At her birthday party, which she decorated for herself, she is given a typical 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. One day she opens the box, pours the pieces onto the table and begins to put the puzzle together. What seems so simple of a pleasure, produces a joy in her that causes her to lie to her husband about having to help an injured aunt, giving her cover to get on board a train from her Connecticut town, and venture back to New York City to find the same puzzle shop where her birthday gift was purchased. There she buys two more, as well as sees a tear off ad/flyer by an individual looking for a puzzle partner, with a contact number on it.
Puzzle is a film that meticulously builds, piece by piece, to reveal a portrait that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Giving the number a call, she arranges to meet Robert (Irrfan Khan; Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi), a divorced inventor who lives in his wealthy home after the success of one invention. Having won a previous puzzle tournament (there are such things), he is looking to participate in a doubles category, but his partner has left (it is his former wife), and he is in need of a new one. Agnus sits and works a puzzle with him and he begins to see in her what she has not seen in herself for a long time, namely that she is a strange, unique, and beautiful woman, who has found something that she is finally good at….puzzles.
Robert and Agnus are characters that truly are the polar opposites of each other, yet are used throughout the narrative of the film to strip away whatever facades have been erected in the other’s life that keeps them from living fully. For Angus, it is the safety of the routine of her family and faith. While she clings to those things as important, Robert seems to view them as suspect, and a hindrance. He would rather watch the news constantly, being particularly obsessed with natural disasters around the world. She keeps herself ignorant of the world around her, preferring the simplicity of her routines than to be depressed by the news.
As they work their puzzles, they also begin to figure out more about themselves in the process. He finds himself opening up to possibilities and optimism, maybe even faith, through his interactions with Agnus. She begins to doubt all that she once placed her faith in, desiring to begin living and knowing about the world around her that she had been able to shut out through her routines. This eventually will threaten to undo the very life she has pieced together over the years, much like when she shakes the pieces of her puzzle before dumping it all out hoping to be able to piece it together once again.
Puzzle is a story that draws the audience into the life of this quirky woman in a way that is both awkward and fascinating. Kelly Macdonald gives an amazing performance that should generate some Oscar talk by year’s end, and she plays wonderfully off of the eccentric styling of Irrfan Khan, who should frankly be in many more films, as he is always good.
Marc Turtletaub is able to pace the film much like if one were doing a puzzle, step by step, piece by piece. He is in no rush to tell the story, and the script seems to breath more as a result, providing a surprising tension around a puzzle competition that one might usually experience in a more uplifting sports film where the sport becomes the metaphor for how to approach life. Unlike the frustration I feel when doing a puzzle, this film about puzzles is engaging and highlights some bigger ideas we could all ponder as we examine our own lives. He also allows some of the tragic consequences of Agnus’ lies and her evolving character to naturally begin to wreak havoc on the life she had so meticulously built over the decades in a way that felt true to the story Puzzle was trying to tell.
Puzzle is quietly opening this weekend where there is a lot of competition from some bigger films, and therefore might not generate a lot of mainstream discussions. It is however a film that will reward those who are able to find it out and experience the rebirth of Agnus as a woman who is transformed by something as profound as a puzzle.