Marc Turtletaub’s Puzzle is a film marked by a certain solidness, a movie that doesn’t quite approach greatness but yet has a such a genuine, complex and relatably human outlook that puts it ahead of the bulk of movies out there right now. And while I may be hedging against Puzzle‘s greatness, it’s a movie that handles complicated issues like love and desire in a way that’s wholly honest and short on dramatics, something I sense will keep the movie in my mind longer than it maybe has any right to.
Conceptually, the film could have gone in a few different directions, all of which would have been exceedingly more tawdry or melodramatic. It could have been a rom-com or an uplifting story of competition, but Puzzle is more concerned with emotion and living a satisfied life. Agnes (Kelly Mcdonald) is a devoutly Catholic housewife with a loving husband (David Denman) and two sons entering adulthood. Her life is comfortable, though unexciting and, from the outside at least, a bit uneventful. This starts to change when she gets a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday and discovers that she’s exceedingly fast at putting it together and finds that act of assembling the pieces brings her great satisfaction.
This leads the homebody Agnes on an impromptu train trip to Manhattan for more jigsaw puzzles and eventually into meeting Robert (Irrfan Khan), a slightly eccentric puzzle enthusiast who’s looking for a competition partner. Agnes, who’s spent her life taking care of her family, jumps at the chance to practice twice a week with Robert, keeping something as seemingly flippant as her love of puzzles a secret from her family.
It becomes quickly apparent that the problem is Agnes’ boredom with her life and its routine. Even though her husband adores her, he still doesn’t seem to take her seriously as a person, chaining her to a life of housework and cooking while her obvious (and low-key) brilliance has been put to waste. He makes decisions without consulting her and generally seems to neglect her needs. Her relationship with Robert, however, is more inquisitive and more intellectual and simply different from what she’s used to. And while it does lead to an amount of attraction, it’s never one that feels out-of-hand.
This is what makes Puzzle so interesting in its own quiet way. What could have easily turned tawdry is instead nothing more than the story of a woman taking control of her life in small but significant ways. The thematic gentleness is what makes the movie so relatable and genuine, while there’s an amount of care and understanding put into every single character. It’s a movie that operates within a sphere of moral complexity while never overdoing things, a balancing act that makes Puzzle worth a look. Rated R for language. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.