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‘Puzzle’ seeks to assemble the pieces of our lives  

“Puzzle” (2018). Cast: Kelly Macdonald, David Denman, Irrfan Khan, Austin Abrams, Bubba Weiler, Liv Hewson, Audrie Neenan. Director: Marc Turtletaub. Screenplay: Polly Mann and Oren Moverman. Story Source: Natalia Smirnoff, “Rompecabezas” (“Puzzle”), 2009 Argentinian film. Web site. Trailer.

Many of us look at our lives and see them as complete – only to discover not long thereafter that they’re not. Pieces may seem missing or out of place, realizations that we might view as frustrating, mystifying or even troubling. We could be tempted to ignore those shortcomings, hoping they’ll go away or resolve themselves on their own, but those “solutions” seldom work out as hoped for. It’s times like that when we must make a concerted effort to determine what’s gone awry and take steps to make repairs, a process detailed in the thoughtful domestic drama, “Puzzle,” now available on DVD and streaming services.

Middle-aged homemaker Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is something of a walking anachronism. The forty-something wife and mother leads a modest existence that resembles something more out of the 1950s than the present day. She lives a quiet, traditional life in an immigrant community of Yonkers, having never ventured far from home (even to nearby New York) nor taken the time to pursue any interests of her own. Instead, she’s dutifully fulfilled the obligations of housewife, caretaker and humble parishioner, spending virtually all of her days cooking, cleaning and, like the good Catholic girl she was raised, helping out at the church. She even does all the preparations for her own birthday party, fixated more on the needs of her guests than enjoying herself.

Having long lived a secluded life in Yonkers, middle-aged housewife Agnes (Kelly Macdonald, center) discovers a big wide world while on a trip to nearby New York in the nuanced domestic drama, “Puzzle,” available on DVD and streaming services. Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Agnes’s biggest obligation, though, is taking care of the men in her family, her husband, Louie (David Denman), and two teenage sons, Gabe (Austin Abrams) and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler). It’s a continuation of a tradition that began with looking after her widowed father, setting a pattern that has persisted unquestioningly into adulthood. To be sure, Agnes’s guys take good care of her, especially Louie, who is a devoted, loving protector, albeit a bit oblivious to recognizing and addressing her needs.

However, as Gabe and Ziggy approach their own adulthood, Agnes is facing the impending empty nest stage and begins to wonder about her life. Has she gotten everything out of it that she wants? And what will she do for her future if the role she has traditionally played changes? That’s hard to say, because even Agnes doesn’t have ready answers to these questions, having never taken the time to ponder these notions, let alone given herself permission to find out what pleases her.

That changes, though, when she opens her birthday presents. Agnes receives a jigsaw puzzle as a gift, and she’s captivated by it. She relishes the process of assembling the pieces to create a completed picture, especially when she discovers she’s quite good at it – not to mention fast. Simple as it might seem, Agnes suddenly has a new passion, and this time she decides to pursue it, even if somewhat discreetly. Given how she’s lived most of her life, she seems to feel a need to keep it under wraps, especially when it impacts her obligations to her family.

The men in the life of a middle-aged housewife – husband Louie (David Denman, center) and teenage sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler, left) and Gabe (Austin Abrams, right) – are virtually her entire world, as seen in director Mark Turtletaub’s “Puzzle,” now available on DVD and streaming services. Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

After assembling the puzzle she received as a gift, Agnes craves more. She ventures into New York to visit the store from which her gift was purchased, and she’s like a kid in a candy shop, picking up several new puzzles. While there, she also spots a notice about a competitive puzzler who’s seeking a partner to collaborate for a doubles tournament. Agnes takes the contact information and pursues the opportunity, a decision that’s very much out of character but that she nevertheless acts on, following her impulses with little hesitation.

Before long, Agnes meets her prospective puzzling partner, Robert (Irrfan Khan), a wealthy, divorced, bored, semiretired inventor. Her initial visit to his well-appointed New York townhouse is somewhat awkward, but there’s a definite, if uncomfortable, chemistry between the two of them. Puzzling may be the interest they share overtly, but there’s clearly more going on between them underneath the surface.

In his own way, Robert wants to help Agnes liberate the pent-up passion for living that she’s been suppressing for so many years. He’s aware that she has much to offer others, but he’s anxious to see her devote more of her energies to fulfilling her own wants and needs. It’s as if he sees her as a volcano on the verge of erupting if only she’ll allow herself to do so.

At the same time, Agnes seeks to help Robert re-engage with the world, coaxing him to emerge from the reclusive existence he’s slipped into in the wake of his divorce. She tries to show him that there’s more to life than just assembling puzzles, the only activity in which he seems to show any interest. Until now, he’s had little incentive to change, given that the ample financial resources he amassed from his technological expertise have enabled this comfortable, if isolated, lifestyle. She believes he has much more to offer the world, including in the career he’s allowed to atrophy, if only he’ll apply his talents as he once did.

Middle-aged and long-sheltered housewife Agnes (Kelly Macdonald, left) discovers a new personal passion as a competitive jigsaw puzzler with her tournament partner, Robert (Irrfan Khan, right), as seen in the heartfelt domestic drama, “Puzzle.” Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

As the relationship develops, it begins to involve more than just assembling puzzles. But, metaphorically speaking, this is a fitting backdrop as Agnes and Robert struggle to see how the pieces of their connection fit together. In addition to sorting out their joint dealings, they each have their own individual considerations to address. For instance, Agnes has the future of her marriage to consider. She truly loves Louie, but she can’t help but wonder whether his limited view of their relationship and his inattentiveness to her needs are enough for her now that she’s begun to broaden her horizons. She wrestles with what to do, keeping her thoughts and feelings contained and even going so far as to make up stories about how she’s spending time that she’s having trouble accounting for.

So how will it all shake out? That’s what remains to be seen. Given everything that’s going on with Agnes, Robert and Louie, there are multiple directions in which matters can unfold. It all depends on the picture the principals each want to create for themselves, developments that are direct outgrowths of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.

In many respects, this various threads of this story offer us an excellent look at how our beliefs construct our reality. The nature of each character’s existence is a clear reflection of their individual beliefs, and, as their beliefs begin to evolve, their respective realities become altered in kind, direct reflections of the thoughts and intents that brought these changes into being. It’s as if the film is giving us a primer on how this all works, presenting viewers with undeniably clear examples of the unfolding of the manifestation process. As beliefs change, so, too, do the realities that flow from them.

For example, as Agnes opens up to possibilities she hadn’t previously considered, her existence provides her with tangible options for experience and enjoyment that previously weren’t available to her. Similarly, as Robert chooses to reconnect with aspects of life other than his puzzles, he rejuvenates his enthusiasm for living, re-engaging with other elements of his existence, more so than he has done so for quite some time. And, as Louie begins to see his relationship with Agnes change, he realizes the need to become more cognizant of how he relates to her and how to address her wants and needs. None of this occurs instantaneously; it’s a gradual process but one that’s quite obviously tied to the evolution of the beliefs of those who bring their realities into being.

Louie (David Denman), a hard-working and protective but sometimes-oblivious husband, becomes bewildered about the state of his marriage when his long-predictable wife begins behaving in ways out of character as seen in “Puzzle,” now available on DVD and streaming services. Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

In each of these cases, the characters change their beliefs by disposing of those that no longer serve them and replacing them with rewritten notions more in line with what they want and need. Again, the process unfolds piecemeal, but it’s deliberate and thoughtful, even if the replacement beliefs aren’t immediately apparent.

For instance, Agnes comes to realize that she needs more out of life than simply attending to the well-being of the men in her life, that she requires personal fulfillment that has been stifled for decades, something that her passion for puzzles helps to illuminate. Robert, meanwhile, understands that he can no longer continue to hide in the comforts of his townhouse, alone and without meaningful connection to others and to a purposeful calling in life. And Louie sees that, if wants his marriage to continue, he must do more for Agnes than just provide the means for giving her a roof over her head and putting food on her plate; he must be more perceptive about her wants and needs and then take action to attend to them, an effort that requires him to believe that simply bringing home the bacon is not enough to make his marriage work.

To instigate this process, a catalytic spark is required. The catalysts in this story facilitate the evolution of the characters’ beliefs and enable the process to unfold. As the film illustrates, puzzles provide a fitting metaphor by urging the principals to see how the pieces of their transforming lives fit together. The puzzle assembly process symbolically prompts Agnes and Robert to take a different view of their lives, providing them with new perspectives of their existence. And this works not only for completing the pictures of their finished puzzles, but also for composing the picture of their lives.

What begins as a competitive puzzling partnership takes unexpected turns over time as collaborators Robert (Irrfan Khan, left) and Agnes (Kelly Macdonald, right) discover in the nuanced domestic drama, “Puzzle.” Photo by Linda Kallerus, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Admittedly, this process may require some trial and error to sort things out. Given that these characters have long lived rather limited forms of existence, they may well be uncomfortable stepping into unfamiliar territory, unsure of what suits them or even what they want. This process might also involve the practice of learning various life lessons, something that may not work out perfectly on the first attempt (or even multiple attempts). However, since this is part and parcel of our personal growth and development, this is not unexpected. We’d be wise to simply embrace this as an integral aspect of our evolution, one that we should hope will ultimately lead to greater degrees of awareness and enlightenment. Where Agnes, Robert and Louie are concerned, we can only hope that they find their way, that they discover lives that bring them the satisfaction and fulfillment they seek – something to which we should all aspire.

Life’s pieces don’t always fit together as well as we’d like, and “Puzzle” shows us just that, albeit a little too well at times. Based on the 2009 Argentinean film “Rompecabezas” (“Puzzle”), this feature successfully incorporates all the elements of a realistic, superbly nuanced picture, especially when it comes to reflecting the story’s central theme. However, director Mark Turtletaub’s offering could nevertheless use a little more narrative “glue” to hold the pieces together more effectively. At the same time, though, the heartfelt performances of Macdonald, Denman and Khan truly make this offering worth watching, but don’t be surprised if you sometimes find yourself just as frustrated as the characters themselves.

To say that life is sometimes “puzzling” is indeed an understatement. We may wonder why events transpire as they do, often leaving us with questions that seem unanswerable. But, with a little effort on our part, that need not be the case. By taking the time to assess our beliefs – both for what they are and for what we would like them to be – we can begin to put the pieces together to fashion a clear picture, one that we can hope is beautiful – and to our liking.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.


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