Marc Turtletaub, who produced notable indie features such as Safety Not Guaranteed and Little Miss Sunshine, is the director of Puzzle, an interesting, low-key drama about a woman who discovers that she has an unusual skill -solving jigsaw puzzles incredibly fast. As we’re introduced to Agnes (played by Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald), she is celebrating her birthday with friends and family with the look of someone enduring more than enjoying the occasion. Her life is conventional in a traditional working-class manner —living in the suburbs, cooking for her husband (auto mechanic Louie, played by David Denman) and sons, and active with the church.
One of Agnes’s birthday gifts is a jigsaw puzzle, which she effortlessly completes. After finding that the puzzle was purchased in downtown Manhattan. She takes the Metro North train (I’m not sure if she’s in Westchester, upstate NY, or Connecticut) for the first time and even finds buying a train ticket confusing.
In addition to buying some new puzzles, she finds a flyer someone posted advertising for a “puzzle partner.”
Agnes’s puzzle adventure really starts when she meets her puzzle partner Robert (the late Irrfan Khan, who sadly died not long after Puzzle was released), an eccentric, independently wealthy inventor who uses puzzles as a way to discipline his wandering mind, as he explains it (paraphrasing here). The world-weary intellectual Robert is about as far from Agnes’s home life as could be imagined. Agnes hides her new pastime and friendship from Louie, telling him that she’s caring for a sick relative. Somewhat predictably, as Agnes and Robert practice for a puzzle tournament, they become attracted to each other.
Despite her feelings for Robert and her enthusiasm for the new world he helps her discover, Agnes is not quite ready to leave her old life. She’s very attached to her sons, especially the sensitive and confused, and floundering Ziggy (Bubba Weiler). And, despite rebelling against Louie’s extremely old-fashioned values (when Ziggy talks about becoming a chef, Louie objects that it’s not a very manly profession), Agnes still has feelings for him.
What really matters in Puzzle isn’t so much what people do but how they do it. I wasn’t originally keen to see Puzzle as jigsaw puzzles don’t seem promising as a subject for a movie. Chess is another cerebral activity that has inspired a couple of good films, such as Searching For Bobby Fischer The Queen’s Gambit. But even chess, as a competitive strategy game, has more opportunity for drama than the basically solo activity of puzzle-solving. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t spend too much time actually showing people do puzzles but is much more concerned with why they do them.
Puzzle manages to avoid the expected sports movie formula (that can also apply to other competitive pursuits such as chess, dance competitions, etc) as the prodigy wins one tournament after another until he or she faces down the big rival in the final scene. Puzzle succeeds as an original and compelling drama largely because the actual puzzles remain mostly in the background. While the journey of a woman who discovers there’s more to life than being a wife and mother is familiar, Puzzle, largely due to magnetic performances by MacDonald and Khan, manages to break through and tell a compelling and original story.
Puzzle is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.