An innocuous gift makes a homemaker question her life in the insightful drama Puzzle.
We meet Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) as she’s fulfilling all of the duties of a party host: serving drinks, picking up the pieces of a broken plate, even taking the time to glue the pieces back together. It’s when she lights the candles on a birthday cake only to blow them out do we understand that this is her party, and she’s not able to enjoy it.
Agnes’s husband Louie (David Denman) and their young adult sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams) take her efforts for granted, in part because she’s so good at running a household. She’s detail oriented and attuned to how long each task takes, starting the laundry before she runs to the grocery store so that it’s ready to go in the dryer as soon as she gets home, leaving just enough time to prepare dinner before the men in the family get home from work or school.
She finally loses track of time when she opens one of her birthday presents: a puzzle depicting a map of the world. Agnes flies through it, assembling the 1000-piece puzzle in hours (minutes, maybe) instead of the days it would take most people. She enjoys herself so much that she breaks up the puzzle and does it again, not realizing she’s forgotten to make dinner until Louie and Ziggy walk through the door.
Louie’s dismissal of puzzles as “childish” forces Agnes to pursue her hobby secretly. At a specialty shop in the city, she meets a man in search of a “puzzle partner”: Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy divorcee who is as worldly and intelligent as Louie is parochial and incurious. Robert’s fascination with Agnes and his encouragement of her independence makes her realize how little attention she’s given to her own wants and needs since she became a wife and mother.
Even as a more equitable division of household chores has become normalized, women are still responsible for the majority of housework (even when they are the primary breadwinner). As such, the depiction of Agnes’s plight will resonate with a lot of women. In the immediate term, it’s easier for Agnes to do everything herself rather than ask Louie and Gabe to help (Ziggy sometimes offers), especially since they’d just feign ignorance rather than try. Clean clothes are made dirty again and dinner needs to be cooked every night — an endless loop of mundane tasks that allows precious little time to question one’s purpose in life.
Louie isn’t abusive or mean, but his vision of how life is supposed to be hinges on a wife who accepts her role in it. When Agnes does start to question her part, her rebellion is staged on a small scale. There’s little in Puzzle that could be described as explosive, but the film’s message is impactful nonetheless.
Driving that is a well-constructed script, written by Oren Moverman and Natalia Smirnoff, who wrote and directed the Argentine film of the same name upon which Puzzle is based. The dialogue is direct and memorable, particularly Robert’s explanation for why Agnes finds solving puzzles so satisfying: “When you complete a puzzle, when you finish it, you know that you have made all the right choices.”
The film’s performances are likewise strong, though Macdonald’s precise dialogue delivery comes off as bit affected and takes some getting used to. Khan at first seems to channel Jeff Goldblum, but quickly makes the role his own. Weiler’s turn as Agnes’s unexpected ally Ziggy is sweet.
Keeping a tight focus on one woman’s evolution helps Puzzle to illuminate a particular aspect of modern gender dynamics. It’s as thought-provoking as it is enjoyable to watch.