Did you ever think a jigsaw puzzle would nearly tear a family apart?
In Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub, a family’s traditionalist catholic stability is nearly upended when the domestic head of the family Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) receives a puzzle for her birthday. She takes an immediate interest in completing the thousand-piece puzzle, eventually completing it twice in one day. In search of more puzzles, Agnes finds the store where the gift came from. At the checkout counter is an ad – “Good with puzzles? Desperately seeking partner” with a phone number to text. With her new birthday cell phone, she contacts the puzzler, Robert (Irrfan Khan), and Agnes descent into a complicated reality begins.
What begins as a hobby that focuses Agnes attention opens her eyes to the harsh realities of a secular world around her and an affair with Robert. Ultimately, Agnes isn’t in search of a new partner, she’s in search of her individualism in a world that has fought to keep her in servitude.
Puzzle is a neatly focused slice of Americana, subtly stoking the divide regarding Christian fundamentalism and worldly intellectualism. Agnes and her family are contended but poor. Robert is intelligent and rich, yet always anxious about world events he has no control over. Neither seems overly happy.
The careful line in a film like this is in who a woman like Agnes will end up with. This is a mistake, however. Flaunting convention, this isn’t a “will they or won’t they” story, despite it seeming to head in that direction. Agnes’ husband, Louie – played by David Denman, who echoes his conflicted character of Roy from NBC’s The Office – is a staunch traditionalist who at times comes across as stereotypically misogynist. “But he’s a good person,” Agnes defends. Yet, returning home from work to find Agnes having spent her day putting another puzzle together one day, he asks with complete earnestness, “where’s dinner?” It’s a little too on the nose, but other times he shows genuine love for her, which she reciprocates. Louie’s simply just an oblivious fool, caught in a loop of isolated patriarchal upbringings. But so was Agnes.
It isn’t necessarily hard to predict where Puzzle is going from here. Agnes’ spine grows exponentially. She becomes combative against the role she became sequestered in. She begins to purposefully neglect her husband’s wants and needs while pushing her children to be more than they thought they could be. Her transition from the passive voice in the family to the active one affects not just her, but her sons, who have also been pushed down by the systemic restrictions that Louie has been so hardwired to adhere to.
It’s not his fault, necessarily, that he’s so insistent on his oldest son working in his mechanic shop; it’s tradition. When their oldest says he wants to cook, Louie retorts that it’s not “manly” despite the protestations and facts that he and Agnes present about the predominance of male chefs in a large industry. “How do you know that?” Louie asks. “I googled it,” Agnes says.
It’s exciting to see Agnes’ inspire her kids to their greater potential after realizing hers. It’s upsetting to see Louie try to deflate them – not because of anything malicious, but because of the comfort of his little box.
This is the deeper criticisms that Puzzle plays with, but ultimately it’s still Agnes’ story. Macdonald starts Puzzle by remarkably channelling her character from No Country For Old Men. The vastly changing array of clothing, colour, and hairstyle – the overall character design throughout the movie is fascinating – cues Agnes’ transition throughout the film.
Turtletaub makes other great uses of visuals in Puzzle. After Agnes and Louie have an argument, for example, she leaves the room and shuts the lights off only for Louie to protest, “I’m still in here.” It’s a brief but insightful move that showcases how, in almost every way, Agnes is leaving him in the dark. It may not be the most subtle, but it’s a good use of visual storytelling.
Furthermore, Macdonald handles Agnes’ complicated romantic relationships with a deft hand. Anges still loves Louie, but she also loves Robert and the puzzling world that she’s now actively competing in. By the end of Puzzle, however, Agnes makes a choice that compliments her, and her alone.
It should be obvious now that the titular puzzle is Agnes. She’s complicated in a way that Louie thinks she shouldn’t be and that her sons find refreshing, and she’s fascinatingly complex in a way that Robert hopes to explore as a sort of project. Agnes, meanwhile, is the only one really putting those pieces together
Puzzle will be playing Monday, April 29th at the Meridian Centre For the Arts at Greater Fort Erie Secondary School. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., with the film starting at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.tiffinforterie.com.