Quiet but compelling, Puzzle tells the story of a woman whose life opens up beyond anything she ever imagined after she discovers an innate talent for putting jigsaw puzzles together. Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) lives a contained, domestic life in the suburbs: She shops and cooks for her husband, Louie (David Denham) and their nearly grown two sons, she volunteers for church committees, and she keeps things running at home while Louie works at his garage.
Then Agnes gets a jigsaw puzzle as a birthday present, and things start changing. She puts it together quickly, confidently, and without hesitation — feelings that she clearly doesn’t experience very often. Wanting more, she tracks the puzzle down to its origin source, a specialty store in Manhattan. There she sees an ad for someone seeking a puzzling partner; she responds and meets Robert (a charming Irrfan Khan), an eccentric, worldly jigsaw puzzle master who immediately challenges her on every level.
Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub (previously best known for producing films like Little Miss Sunshine and 3 Generations), is above all a story of a woman’s personal empowerment and growth. Agnes is someone who never really knew what she was missing in the world — or at the very least trained herself not to think about it. Her pre-puzzle life wasn’t terrible, but it also wasn’t exciting or deeply fulfilling. For Agnes, puzzling opens up a world of possibilities: The new sights, sounds, thoughts, and relationships she experiences open her mind and her sense of “what if.” And for perhaps the first time in her life, she dares to think about what she really wants — not what others want from or for her.
A few of the movie’s quirks border on precious (Agnes is so uncomfortable with technology that she can barely operate a phone and has to take a train into the city to buy puzzles, rather than, say, order them from Amazon), but her journey is so exciting for her that it’s impossible not to cheer her on as she starts spreading her wings. Like Edie Falco’s Carol in Lynn Shelton’s Outside In, Agnes must learn — midway through her life — that it’s OK, even necessary, to put yourself first sometimes. Those who really love you will support you … and those who don’t may be the pieces that just don’t fit. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nell Minow: A jigsaw puzzle exists within its borders, every piece fitting together perfectly, providing the illusion of control and certainty. The charm of this film is that solving puzzles is what makes the main character want for the first time to go outside the lines of her life. Learning how good she is at seeing patterns awakens her sense of curiosity, agency, and joy, and seeing that through Kelly McDonald’s luminous performance awakens ours as well.
Susan Wloszczyna: Kelly Macdonald is never less than good and often much better than that in just about every film and TV show I’ve seen her in – Trainspotting, Gosford Park, No Country for Old Men and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. She even summoned considerable vocal spunk as rebellious young royal Merida in Pixar’s Brave. But the Scottish actress rarely gets to fully stretch her wings in an expansive lead role. Puzzle, however, puts her front and center as Agnes. Read full review...
Marilyn Ferdinand: As the saying goes, still waters run deep. In Puzzle, main protagonist Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) carries on an ordinary life as a housewife and mother who barely moves outside the confines of her home and church community. Change is on its way, however. As her oldest son (Bubba Weiler) bridles at still being at home and her youngest son (Austin Abrams) prepares to go off to college, Agnes faces an empty nest and the prospect of living alone with her doting, but very traditional husband (David Denman) whom she no longer loves. She finds a way out through the innocuous act of assembling a jigsaw puzzle. This crisis of midlife could have made for a run-of-the-mill film if not for the extraordinary performance of Kelly Macdonald as a normally meek woman who is compelled through something deep inside her to reach beyond the confines of her safe life of domestic servitude to get something for herself. Although the plot is somewhat preposterous and haphazardly assembled, the genuine emotions and relationships created by the talented cast form a picture that lingers in the mind long after the final piece is set in place.
MaryAnn Johanson How is it possible that Kelly Macdonald has not headlined a movie before now?! Even given that stories about women remain woefully untold, the “unappreciated housewife” character is a fairly familiar one… but she brings freshness and life to it. She makes the most of the tiniest gestures and the smallest glances to convey worlds of emotion: resignation at having to host her own birthday party; newfound confidence in whipping out a train ticket. I don’t think this movie would have succeeded without her. Read full review…
Esther Iverem: Few movies draw you in with something as simple as a toy, and then keep your attention on the strength of performance and narrative. Puzzle, which follows a suburban housewife’s newly found talent for solving complex jigsaw challenges, offers moment after moment of subtle surprise, while asking bigger questions about how human beings find meaning in life.
Jeanne Wolf: Puzzle is a powerful if slowly developing voyage of self-discovery. Kelly Macdonald is excellent. Her portrayal is alternately heart-wrenching and compelling, Her Agnes is a self-doubting woman whose genius for assembling the most challenging jigsaw puzzles clashes with her humdrum existence. Any actor will tell you that it’s a challenge to play a repressive character and sill make her interesting. We see her living her life for others and feel her hurt as she’s taken for granted. She pictures herself and her family sees her as a perfect wife and mom. On a whim she finds a partner and enters a national puzzle contest. Her quiet rebellion opens the door to the tantalizing possibility of a new life. Her triumph is dampened because, of course, there’s a price to pay. Even without a Hollywood ending Puzzle is bound to tug at your heart. The movie affected me long after I saw it.
Liz Whittemore: Puzzle invites us on a journey of a mild-mannered housewife who comes into her own through the unlikely avenue of competitive jigsaw puzzle tournaments. Kelly Macdonald’s character blossoms right before our eyes in the most satisfying way. Pushing back against her patriarchal surroundings, she finally allows herself to think outside the box. Irrfan Khan is dashing and powerful as ever, making for the perfect foil. Oren Moverman’s script explores the idea of true intimacy and self-discovery. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Puzzle is a truly charming narrative about Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a dedicated housewife and mom whose life, as it happens, is a frustrating round of routine chores and time spent trying to please everyone — until she discovers her uncanny skill for assembling jigsaw puzzles and the sense of satisfaction a completed puzzle it gives her. Agnes’ newfound puzzle-solving pleasure soon leads her into the realm of jigsaw competition, where she teams up with an accomplished jigsaw wiz (Irrfan Khan), a lonely puzzle-obsessing champion who soon realizes he’d like to partner with Agnes on more than putting together pieces of cutout cardboard and a timer. How will they resolve the puzzle of their relationship? No spoilers here. See the complete picture.
Sandie Angulo Chen: I wish I had seen Argentine writer-director Natalia Smirnoff 2010 movie, Rompecabezas, on which Puzzle is based, because if it’s even half as good as the American adaptation, it’s worth a watch. Puzzle isn’t directed by a woman, but it does feature an outstanding lead performance by the normally underutilized actress, Kelly Macdonald. As Agnes, a 40ish woman who discovers she’s got a natural talent for finishing jigsaw puzzles, Macdonald is remarkably nuanced. Agnes, a queen of domesticity in her small, working-class town, finds she possesses a hidden talent and takes a big risk when, on a whim, she texts a stranger – a champion puzzler – looking for a partner. The champion is Robert (Irrfan Khan, fantastic as always), a wealthy Manhattanite who lives off the profits of a patent and is obsessed with catastrophes. The two make a strange odd-couple partnership, but through the weekly trips to the City, Agnes discovers a lot about herself and her unrealized potential. A lovely character study of a woman who didn’t know she could dream of and become more.
Anne Brodie: Kelly Macdonald’s demure, self-sacrificing housewife Agnes looks after her family’s every need, every day, all day, and as a result lives a stunted life. She lives in New Rochelle but hasn’t been to New York in years. She bakes her own birthday cake, another act of servitude, just before receiving a present that will change her life. It’s a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle and it turns out she has a knack for it. She’s fast and sure. Agnes answers and ad for a puzzling partner on a whim and agrees to meet him, which means traveling alone to New York, deceiving her husband and bearing the guilt of it. Irrfan Khan plays her deeply impressed new partner and invites her to compete with him in Belgium. Bit by bit his interest in her as a player, then a friend and a woman helps her shed her shell as her husband tries to stuff her back in. She finds her footing and is finally able to say what she means. She admits that she loves her new partner, they have sex and she tells her husband without fear. Each step Agnes takes bring her closer to her authentic self and the idea is clear, if she can make change, so can we, Macdonald is mesmerising as grows in strength and purpose. Marc Turtletaub’s adaptation of the film Rompecabezas is a celebration of freedom.
Cate Marquis Puzzle opens with a woman (Kelly Macdonald) in an old fashioned dress preparing her home for a birthday party. After we see her waiting on guests, cleaning up after them and bringing out the cake she baked, we discover it is her birthday. Her dress and the decor of the house suggest it is the 1930s or ’40s, so we are again surprised when, after the guests are gone and she is opening gifts, one of them is a smart phone – revealing we are in the present. She doesn’t seem very pleased with the phone, but is more interested in the next gift – a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Read full review.
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Release Date: July 27, 2018
Running Time: 103 minutes
Screenwriters: Oren Moverman, Natalia Smirnoff
Distribution Company: Sony Pictures Classics
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin