No matter which aspect of life, there is always underdogs. In the realm of Hollywood, there are films that have significant studio backing and make their box office debuts with plenty of hype and media attention already attached. Outside of the spotlight, there are more niche films that have a narrower target audience but substantial critical acclaim. Think La La Land and Moonlight: two opposite ends of the spectrum. Puzzle is one of those hidden gems. Bolstered by bold character choices and strong performances, it scratches a particular itch you didn’t know was there.
Kelly Macdonald continued her strong career with another excellent performance. Here she plays a housewife, Agnes, who undergoes something of a non-spiritual awakening. After being given a puzzle as a benign and thoughtless gift, she discovers a passion for “puzzling” that acts as a catalyst for significant life changes. She has always been good playing the coy, somewhat naive damsel and that was a good starting place for her here, but her character arc takes her from docile and subservient to confident and assertive. In the process, she must face down the seemingly insurmountable disapproval of her husband and expectations of her children. This was an unconventionally strong female lead and Macdonald’s navigation, of all the subtle intricacies of her character, is so finely tuned and so effortless that it’s easy to take her exceptional performance for granted. Macdonald should find herself on the shortlist for Best Actress candidates at this point, but it’s always a tough category. It will be a good year for her either way, she joins John C. Reilly later this year with some much lighter holiday fare in Ralph Breaks the Internet and Holmes & Watson.
While Irrfan Khan still dedicates the majority of his time to Indian films, he’s established himself as a consistent and powerful on-screen presence for Hollywood as well. He’s shown diversity in both villainous (The Amazing Spider-Man) and heroic (Slumdog Millionaire) roles and his calm and measured demeanor worked especially well with this character. Robert is a semi-professional puzzler and independently wealthy recluse. His love of the game, so to speak, and completely different lifestyle invigorates Agnes with new enthusiasm and confidence for her passion and her own life in a broader sense. He has a laissez-faire attitude, a kind of apathy for his own personal history until he meets her and the two embark on an unlikely partnership. Along the way, they stimulate one another in ways that neither of them expected and share a really beautiful chemistry. Khan got to stretch his legs a bit more with this character (more than his other Hollywood jobs) and he showed tremendous depth and passion as a result. Hopefully, he’ll get recognized and offered more diverse and substantial roles down the line. His was one of the better supporting roles so far this year but he may find himself on the outside looking in as well when it comes to awards season.
With a film like this, it was never going to be about action or mystery, it’s was a character-driven film and is backed by a fabulous script and ardent direction. Marc Turtletaub has been producing independent films for a long time but, for a guy who doesn’t have much experience in the director’s chair, he has a good eye and sense of story craftsmanship behind the camera. Smartly, put the burden of success in the hands of his exceptional cast. He adapted this from an Argentinian film (Rompecabezas) with the help of Polly Mann and Oren Moverman, who wrote the screenplay. This was Mann’s but Moverman had previously penned screenplays for interesting titles such as I’m Not There and The Messenger. As a team, they crafted a script that was about much more than just puzzles: and may even be a darkhorse candidate for Best Adapted Screenplay.
At its core, this film tackled existential questions about living and existing as separate ideological paths that often get rushed and cluttered together. The dialogue painted a bold picture of this woman only just beginning to come to terms with who she is, and what she wants, well into her adult life. There’s always been a kind of unspoken rule that family and, more accurately, the role of parent superseded the needs of the individual, especially when it came to women in the household. This film is a beautifully written and inquisitive exploration into the kinds of psychological and emotional strain that can put on all the people involved.
Speaking of those other characters, David Denman played Agnes’ husband Louie. He was not the typical overbearing husband portrayed on screen; there was a lot more subtlety to his depiction. He wasn’t outwardly abusive, physically or emotionally, but there was no support system for his wife in either of those categories either. Denman is a skilled character actor who has been in everything but watching him attempt to decipher what’s wrong in his own behavior is a crucial part of this story and he hit it head-on.
The optics of this film were so smooth, you may not even notice how good they are. Roshelle Berliner captained the production design, setting the stage with sharp tones of conventional Suburbanism. Cathy T. Marshall designed meticulous sets with familiar trappings of home, so subtle that the feel is seamless and natural. Mirren Gordon did a marvelous job costuming Agnes in very bland, neutral garments when we first meet her…at that time she is meek, shy, and subservient. Through the course of her character progression, the wardrobe gradually changes into more dominant colored patterns and powerful solids to reflect her personal growth and empowerment. Christopher Norr captured it all with a splendid eye for this story. Much of her home life is shot in poorly lit close-quarters and comes across very claustrophobic. Once she begins her own adventure, Agnes is often framed by the outdoors or shot against a window which created an important dichotomy between the two halves of her life. All the elements of visual storytelling are incredibly precise and detailed…that kind of subtle workmanship that’s so good, you probably won’t even notice. It’s harder to imitate life than it seems, but the crew here made it look effortless.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie as a timely and poignant drama but it isn’t the kind of movie that is going to blow people away. Mainly because it’s doesn’t grab ahold of you right away, which is probably why I put it on the back burner for over a month before committing to a review. However, it’s a film that gains traction as the story begins to unfold and the characters come into full view, which is what actually makes it a rewarding experience down the stretch.
Recommendation: You may have to wait for streaming services to pick up distribution rights at this point, but see it for the performances in combination with the content. With a very interesting narrative perspective, it managed to be an incredibly engaging character portrait without being an overtly captivating drama.