Puzzle seems like it would be a very difficult film to market. It has the sort of premise that inspires rolling eyes from people who think they've seen it all, the sort of story that is so apparently trite and predictable that serious cinephiles shouldn't feel bad if they give it a pass. The trailer for Puzzle makes it look right at home with Hallmark Channel inspiration porn, something for domestic wives and grandmothers to watch between commercials for cleaning products and fiber supplements, but the film is thankfully so much more than it appears. This is not because it explores unexpected narrative twists but because it examines the underlying emotions of its story without the flippancy one expects from so many stories of domestic drama.
The set-up is simple: in a rural New England town, Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) spends her days cleaning and caring for the house she shares with her husband and two adult sons, nominally appreciated for her role as caretaker but taken for granted to such an extent that she is expected to prepare and manage her own birthday party. One of the presents she receives at said birthday is a 1000 piece puzzle, which she is able to complete twice in one day. As she travels into New York City to buy more puzzles, she realizes that her talent might be something worth exploring, so she gets roped into training for a cooperative puzzle tournament with the reclusively rich Richard (Irrfan Khan).
Now, if director Marc Turtletaub – or more accurately, if the Argentinian film Puzzle is based upon – had opted to focus on the puzzling competition as the crux of an underdog sports narrative, Puzzle would have been a tiresome and entirely expected experience. However, what Turtletaub understands is that the puzzles are merely a mechanism for Agnes's self-actualization, that she is discovering her ability and inclination toward having an identity independent of her loved ones. The titular puzzle isn't made of cardboard but is the undiscovered pieces of Agnes's identity, something she hasn't assembled for herself in twenty years of marriage and is only just now learning to put together. It's a fine line to walk between schmaltzy pandering to the audience and cynicism toward Agnes's initial complacency not to leave a subtly abusive situation, yet Puzzle recognizes that its characters, like real people, don't exist in black and white moral shades, but are instead all flawed without necessarily losing their moral standing (when in the right) or necessarily forgiven (when shown to be in the wrong).
This is realized through some astoundingly powerful performances. Khan acts primarily as a catalyst and sounding board for Agnes's growth, but he is himself a fragile personality, clinging to the tragedies of the world as armor against his personal loneliness. David Denman invests a fragile masculinity of his own into Agnes's husband Louie, portraying a character who at once expects his wife to fulfill the subservient feminine role she always has but is genuinely confused and hurt when she starts to find an identity that doesn't serve his schema of a patriarchal nuclear family. But the centerpiece is, of course, Kelly Macdonald's Agnes, who is cloistered, meek, and slightly bigoted against perspectives that challenge her worldview, but as she opens up to a world outside her home she realizes a humanity in herself that was never before allowed to flourish. Watching that transformation without needing to have it explained through exposition is enthralling, even if Macdonald's American accent isn't entirely believable.
Puzzle isn't what I'd call transcendent cinema, but it is a surprisingly engaging film with a premise that lesser filmmakers would have conceived for appeal to the lowest common denominator and passed on giving the target audience an emotional challenge. The inspiration of this film is not hollow or blatantly manufactured as one might expect, because all the pieces of its construction have been placed with thoughtfulness and care. And when those pieces are assembled, the picture it produces is a beautiful one.