On its surface, Puzzle is almost comically simple. It’s about a beleaguered homemaker who gets into competitive jigsaw puzzles and, through her friendship with her jigsaw puzzle partner, goes down a path of self-discovery and awakening. That description almost seems like a parody of an indie movie, and yet it’s endlessly charming and moving in the hands of director Marc Turtletaub. Rather than rely on quirk or comedy to try and hide from the emotions his story seeks to convey, Turtletaub tells his narrative with complete sincerity and earnestness, buoyed by outstanding performances from leads Kelly Macdonald and Irrfan Khan. Puzzle may not be a big movie, but it’s a surprisingly rich one.
Agnes (Macdonald) is a homemaker who’s completely unappreciated at home. Her husband, Louie (David Denman), isn’t abusive, but he takes her for granted and treats her more like a servant than a spouse. Her son Gabe (Austin Abrams) is similarly selfish, and the only support Agnes seems to get is from her shy son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), who wishes his mom would start standing up for herself. When she gets a jigsaw puzzle for a birthday present and completes it quickly, she heads to the puzzle store to buy more sets only to discover an ad looking for a competitive jigsaw puzzle partner. She answers it and meets Robert (Khan), a reclusive former inventor who actually shows an interest in Agnes’ inner life. As Agnes starts devoting more time to her interests and desires, she comes alive and pushes back against her simple life.
The most beautiful thing about Puzzle is how there’s nothing grandiose about it. The movie isn’t about Agnes trying to recapture her youth or becoming an adrenaline junkie. It always keeps to the quiet, small scale of people doing jigsaw puzzles, and just unfolding as a tale of self-discovery and confidence. There’s something immensely reassuring in Puzzle that you don’t need to indulge in some grand gesture or reckless risk to come alive. For Agnes, the small step of taking time away from her family and doing something for herself sets her on a path where she gains self-confidence and the wherewithal to stand up to the men in her life that have taken her goodness for granted.
For some actors, they would be tempted to engage in the most acting, to make Agnes’ journey seem bigger and chew on major conflicts. Macdonald wisely goes small, never really needing to raise her voice because she always is able to deliver the intensity and emotion of her performance while retaining her character’s humanity. Puzzle is all about the small, subtle ways a person can change, and Macdonald understands that we don’t need Agnes to seem like a completely different person as much as one who finds the strength within herself. That doesn’t require a 180 on her personality as much as it means finding the texture and nuance of the character, and Macdonald gives one of the best performances of her career bringing Agnes to life.
She’s well matched with Khan, an actor I could listen to read the phone book. Like Agnes, he never needs to go big with his performance. These are two quiet, introverted people (if the love of jigsaw puzzles didn’t tip you off), and both actors know that they have to get serious drama without ever raising their voices. They pull it off beautifully, and if the whole movie were just the two of them chatting and solving jigsaw puzzles, that would probably be pretty great on its own. It’s one of thing for an actor to get a big, complicated character, but there’s something to said for playing quiet people who have rich interior lives.
For some, Puzzle might be too small, and the way Turtletaub sets his tone, anything, such as the symbolism, that rises above a whisper seems jarring. But for the most part, Puzzle is a sweet movie about a woman finding her voice not through some radical transformation, but from something seemingly small and simple. It’s a story that makes you want to stand up and cheer for Agnes not because she saved the world or transformed a nation, but because she found her inner strength on her terms and in a lovely way.