Puzzle is exactly the kind of mid-level, quietly unassuming drama that is so missing from Hollywood these days. A film without flash or polish, not aiming to wow or beg for acclaim. It exists solely for the purpose of narrative, telling a story that you might not have thought you wanted to see but which tunnels its way into your heart and moves you.
We have here all the makings of a sleeper hit, though the cynical side of me knows most audiences will ignore it while wondering where all the storytelling in movies have gone. Maybe there’ll be an avalanche of buzz that propels people to the local cinema and turns Puzzle into something of a low-level sensation. It certainly deserves it; director Marc Turtletaub has crafted a film worthy of attention and consideration, one that leaves an outsized impact on your emotional psyche.
Based on the Argentinian film Rompecabezas, from writer/director Natalia Smirnoff, Puzzle is a slice of life character study about need and belonging when the life you’ve always lived isn’t necessarily the life you want. It’s an often stunning little drama propelled by powerful performances and nuanced script by writers Polly Mann and Oren Moverman.
Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting, Boardwalk Empire) plays Agnes, a small town Catholic housewife married to a hardworking rube, Louie (David Denman, Logan Lucky, 13 Hours), who stifles his wife with old fashioned ideas about marriage roles. After receiving a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday, Agnes discovers she has an almost preternatural aptitude for puzzling, which leads her on a path towards Robert (Irfan Khan, Jurassic World), an eccentric rich inventor living in New York City who is in search of a partner for competitive puzzling.
Competitive puzzling sounds weird, I know, but it’s certainly something that exists (if you’ve got an hour and a spare dollar, there’s a fascinating documentary on the subject called Wicker Kittens available to rent on Amazon). It’s a bizarre little subculture whose adherents take things seriously, as adherents are wont to do. It’s a new world for Agnes, however, and her introduction to it opens her world to the impossible and teaches her things about herself she never acknowledged, or even knew, before.
It’s easy to see the metaphor at play here. Puzzling is a challenge of patience and wits, a game of trial and error that rewards you with a feeling of completeness. As Robert points out in the film, the mistakes of your past don’t matter in the face of the final output. It’s like life, in that way. We’re all just trying to assemble our pieces into a bigger picture, though we don’t often recognize ourselves doing it as we do.
Saying “the real puzzle was herself” sounds hokey and hackneyed, but the script, direction, and performances all meld to form a fascinating and emotionally moving tale of self-discovery and freedom. Macdonald exquisitely portrays Agnes, giving her a profound depth and sadness that you desperately root for her to, ahem, puzzle out. Hers a story about a late life blooming, even as it threatens to tear apart everything she knows.
Khan, meanwhile, is as fascinating as ever. Robert seems like an aloof layabout, happy to while away his days living on the money from an old patent. Like his counterpart, however, there’s a surprising depth to his character, and while their partnership might be an odd one, they play well both with and off each other. Their chemistry is awkward, but rightfully so, and their interplay is amazing. Khan’s eccentric performance is magnetic.
Puzzle isn’t a film that will make a huge impact across the wider market, but it can certainly make a personal impact on you. Its small scale belies its large depth, and it’s the kind of quiet character driven narrative that so many lament the death of. Hopefully this movie finds its audience. Maybe it won’t win any of the big awards, maybe it won’t break any box office records, but it’s still a stunning, beautiful meditation on living life to its best and fullest.
Puzzle is now playing in select theaters.