Directed By Marc Turtletaub
Screenplay By Oren Moverman & Polly Mann
Based on the film Rompecabezas by Natalia Smirnoff
Dramas, which like to feel above genre, have their own recognizable tropes. You can often see what’s going to happen as clearly as you can see the ending of an action flick or a romantic comedy. Of course, with the good ones, you can be delightfully surprised.
As I watched Puzzle – a drama about a woman who discovers her worth through jigsaw puzzles – I felt myself recognizing the traditional setups for the big events in the third act. But to my joy, I found something new instead of the same old same old. When I assumed there would be an emotional explosion, there were quiet tears. The film felt more like life and less like drama.
When we first meet Agnes (Kelly Macdonald in an Oscar-worthy performance), she’s hosting a birthday party. She cleans the house. She cooks the food. When her husband breaks a plate, she cleans up the mess. It’s a shock when we realize it’s her own birthday party.
She’s a very conventional housewife, cleaning, cooking, and taking care of her two teenage sons and her blue-collar husband (David Denman). Outside of her house, her life revolves the local Catholic church and the supermarket. When her son brings home a girlfriend who is both a vegan and a Buddhist, she doesn’t really understand what those words mean.
She’s not stupid. As the film builds, we realize how exceptionally intelligent she really is. But she knows little about anything outside of her family and her religious community.
That birthday party changes her life, although she doesn’t realize it until afterwards. Someone gave her a jigsaw puzzle, and she discovers that she not only loves it, but she’s a prodigy. Agnes can finish the most complicated puzzles in a surprisingly short time. I found that difficult to swallow. I don’t believe that raw talent is enough; it must be augmented by a lot of practice. But in Puzzle, she tries it twice and is proclaimed a genius. And yet I accepted that cheat so I could enjoy the movie. It was worth it.
Who proclaims her genius? A brilliant, rich inventor from India (Irrfan Khan). He needs a partner for a puzzle contest, and Agnes answers his ad. After their first practice together, he tells her she’s the best puzzle expert he’s ever seen.
This handsome man is miles away from her overweight husband, figuratively and literally. Not only is he educated, exotic (from her point of view), and better looking, but he lives in New York City. We don’t really know how far that is from Agnes’ small-town home, but she’s clearly not used to it.
Of course, Agnes lies to her family about the puzzles, and worse, about her puzzle partner. Meanwhile, a sexual magnetism grows between the two. You know that’s not going to turn out well.
Agnes has lived her entire life serving men, but the film doesn’t make those men villains. They, too, are caught in the expectations of their community. When she changes, everyone near to her feels the earth move.