Starring Kelly MacDonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman, Bubba Weiler
For far too long, Kelly MacDonald has been a supporting actress in award-winning films where she’s gotten little to no recognition. Performances in “Elizabeth” (the poisoned dress) or the innocence she portrays in the final scenes of “No Country For Old Men” are samples of her range. “Puzzle” brings the Scottish actress front and center, a lead role in a film that carries both weight and significance. Producer turned director Marc Turtletaub tackles this rare middle-age coming of age story. A story with a prolonged sense of nervousness that helps us better relate to what the main character is feeling. “Puzzle” often comes dangerously close to mirroring the anecdotes of “Bridges of Madison County” (uneducated rural housewife, longing for a more sophisticated, well-traveled companion). “Puzzle” is a necessary, albeit cautionary tale, for women in similar circumstances.
Agnes (MacDonald) has always done what she is supposed to, playing her part as a housewife, mother, and an active participant in church activities. Needlessly devoting her entire life to husband Louie (Denman), a hard-working local grease monkey and her two sons. Eldest son Ziggy (Wiler) is miserable working alongside his father, while youngest son Gabe (Austin Abrams) has college in his sights; an opportunity Agnes never had. For her birthday, she receives a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle which she assembles in record time. She meets competition puzzler Robert (Khan) after a trip to the city to purchase more puzzles. Robert is the catalyst which leads to changes in Agnes that will disrupt the lives of her and her family, allowing her to finally choose her own direction in life.
It’s a film that creates discussion and dialogue and, on that basis, alone is an achievement.
“Puzzle” takes a minute to find it’s footing. I thought the film was either going in the direction of a mentally challenged genius or destined to turn into a film about mental disorder. However, it is much more complex than that, dealing with societal and religious expectations and obligations on the part of the “wife.” “Puzzle” and Glenn Close’s “The Wife” would make a powerful double feature about women breaking out of traditional, confining marital roles. The puzzle theme of the story could have been any hobby or trait; however, it’s used quite metaphorically, especially when Robert explains why he is drawn to jigsaw puzzles. “Puzzle” grows stronger, and MacDonald more impressive with every scene. Agnes is certainly flawed, she doesn’t always make decisions the audience will agree on, but that just makes her feel more real.
MacDonald never has a “Tiwanda moment,” or an “I am your mother!” scene like Toni Collette did earlier this year. This is a restrained performance of a severely introverted character. Denman (“13 Hours”) as the husband gives the audience something to dislike. His performance as the conditionally loving husband is also honest and unintentionally smothering. “Where is dinner…where is my cheese,” he asks like a dependent Neanderthal. The script for “Puzzle” is so balanced the audience can’t fully hate Robert nor fully love Agnes without some “well I might have handled it this way” interjections. It’s a film that creates discussion and dialogue and, on that basis, alone is an achievement.
Supporting actress no more, Kelly Macdonald delivers the best performance of her career as the lead.