PUZZLE - Ken Morefield
There is a scene about a third of the way through Puzzle in which Robert (Irffan Khan), an idle rich inventor, explains to Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a Roman Catholic housewife, the metaphysical and aesthetic pleasures of making jigsaw puzzles. No matter how many wrong decisions you make along the way, he waxes, at the conclusion you can be confident that everything is exactly as (and where) it should be.
How you feel about such metafictive exposition will probably go a long way toward determining whether you like Puzzle as much as I did. (I liked it a lot.) I normally prefer such thematic elaborations to be a bit more subtle (earlier Robert calls Agnes a “godsend”), but I was so pleasantly surprised to find a commercial narrative film that was genuinely interested in its characters’ religious motivations that I did not begrudge it having them talk more pointedly about them.
A lesser film would be more rigidly structured around the puzzle competition that the unlikely pair partner to enter, treating Agnes’s burgeoning awareness of her own domestic and spiritual unhappiness as a mechanism for suspense. (Will her husband find out where she is going when she and Robert practice? Will he complementarian-shame her into giving up her one piece of self-expression or only just domestically guilt trip her?)
A contemporary “Christian” film about this material would probably be too rigidly linear — using each scene and decision as a mini-illustration of a foregone conclusion rather than taking any genuine interest in the ways people change or showing any curiosity about what prompts them to do so.
But Puzzle turns out to be one of those film gems that is both utterly conventional in its set up and yet fresh and unpredictable in its delivery. It does so in part by investing less time in the conventionally “dramatic” scenes — we get maybe a minute of the actual competition and are only told after-the-fact how it concluded–and more time in character building moments. Agnes sits on the stoop and talks to her elder son, bumming a cigarette that turns out to be her first. A blind man on a subway train sings “Ave Maria.” Agnes buys a train ticket on the train itself and learns the cost is different from buying it at the station. (Hmm, that’s thematically metaphoric too, isn’t it?) These scenes don’t materially advance the plot, but they give us insight into the characters so that when other, more traditionally dramatic things happen, we are invested in their outcome.
Macdonald gives another in a seemingly endless stream of brilliant, understated performances. Much like Brad Pitt, she is a master of vocal delivery, finding unexpected intonations or emphases that evidence how well she knows and understands the character. Nothing would have toppled this movie faster than an overeager performance. Agnes is not timid, but she is guarded. By letting Robert see and articulate her character rather than having Agnes talk about herself, the film allows us to see that reserve as authentic and also understand how the cracks in it are both frightening and intoxicating.
Khan, too, is a magnificent actor who is too often undervalued because his roles are often less showy. (His arc in Season Two of In Treatment is a prime example.) Robert’s ethnicity here is more or less incidental. He spends most days watching the news and lamenting the latest disaster that reflects his inner fear that life is chaos. Khan also has some tremendous line deliveries in this film, particularly in his final scene.
Robert and Agnes are very different in many ways, but they are both fast thinkers. In another expository speech, Robert explains how menial, concrete tasks help fast thinkers to concentrate and remain grounded in the real world. Here again some other film might have tried to express that idea through a visual gimmick–slow motion, soft-focus, sound manipulation. But director Marc Turtetaub wisely trusts his actors. We can see it in the way Agnes finds an old puzzle in her house and can’t quite get it to the table before turning it over and sorting the pieces. The chores she does in and around her first foray into puzzling are more than simply a montage of domestic drudgery she must escape from, they are an expression of her difficulty in multitasking.
For such minds, happiness is often self-forgetfulness. But paradoxically, the joy of getting lost in a task, however trivial, is what also leads to newer and greater self-awareness. In so many (so very, very many) films, that greater self-awareness leads inevitably to a reflexive, contemptuous repudiation of one’s previous self. Perhaps the thing I like best about Puzzle is that it doesn’t insist that we take sides between Agnes and Agnes 2.0. It doesn’t insist that she has transformed into someone or something else. Instead it suggests that, like a puzzle being put together, she is a fuller, more complete version of who and what she always was.
Ken is a Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of and a contributor to Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II and III (2008, 2011, 2015, Cambridge Scholars Publishing). Find him here: https://1morefilmblog.com/