It starts with one piece: a woman, readying her home for a party, straightening a tablecloth and vigorously vacuuming a room, hanging a “happy birthday” banner. Another piece: the party is in full swing, and she’s dutifully attending to everyone, checking in to make sure her husband is having fun. Final piece: she emerges from the kitchen carrying a huge, lit birthday cake, only to have everyone break into song, wishing her a happy birthday. In the minimum of time, “Puzzle” director Marc Turtletaub and writer Oren Moverman have provided a full picture of the woman – Agnes, played by the extraordinary Kelly Macdonald – and her life. It is so very small.
But something small changes it. Turtletaub’s film – his second feature, though he’s got a slew of producing credits, including previous Sundance favorites “Jack Goes Boating” and “Safety Not Guaranteed” — revels in the possibilities of finding something new in a wholly ordinary life. For Agnes, that starts with the literal opening of a birthday gift, one that contains a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that ignites in her not only a new passion, but also the long-dormant sense that she’s excellent at something. And Agnes is really, really good at puzzling, a quick worker who takes great pride in the finished product – before she breaks it all up to start again.
Moverman’s script, based on the Argentinian film “Rompecabezas” by Natalia Smirnoff, is graceful with the details and its characters. Agnes never went to college, lives in the same house she did while growing up with her Hungarian immigrant dad, and looks way too young to already have two grown sons. Her husband Louie (David Denman, essentially playing the same role he did in “The Office”) is a blue-collar dude who loves his wife, but is unable to truly see her. Agnes’ world is a tight circle, moving between home and church and errands and back again. That first puzzle changes everything.
Desperate for another large-scale puzzle – and mostly afraid of the possibilities of internet shopping, a subplot that also sees Agnes trying to navigate her very first iPhone – she heads to New York City, just a train ride away but a place she’s resisted going for whole years. At the puzzle store, a small note hangs from the register: a champion puzzler is looking for a partner. Agnes’ entire life blows up.
“Puzzle” toes a tough line, managing to stay relentlessly good-hearted and deeply humane, even as Agnes herself plunges into deeper, more dramatic waters. It’s the kind of mid-life crisis story that so rarely centers on a woman and Macdonald shines in the role, riveting even in the quietest of moments. That champion puzzler is Robert (Irfan Khan), still reeling from the departure of his former partner – who also happened to be his wife – and it’s clear from the moment they meet that the pair are destined to form a profound bond.
The question is how far Moverman’s script is willing to take it. While Agnes’ evolution is at the center of the film, so is her restrained nature and desire to care for others. The eventual result of Agnes and Robert’s new partnership spreads far beyond just their puzzling – Agnes is coming of age, nearly two decades after she should have, and it won’t be easy – and Macdonald contends mightily with a character fighting against her own intentions. It gets heavy, and occasionally edges into the hammy. At one point, Robert lecture Agnes on the messy randomness of life, and it seems like an excuse for what’s to come, not a way to truly understand it.
“Puzzle” eventually course-corrects, rightly returning to Agnes’ own journey as the center of the film, and allowing her to snap her own pieces into place. The film’s final shot is a wonder, a callback to one of the first intimations that Agnes was dreaming of more, and a push towards the future where everything – how to live, how to love, where to go – is just a touch less puzzling.
“Puzzle” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.