Marc Turtletaub (2018)

How does this sound? An unhappy, unfulfilled, and unappreciated middle-aged housewife finds a refuge and escape from her humdrum life by putting together jigsaw puzzles. So…in a summer that featured Tom Cruise hanging from helicopters, Chris Pratt rescuing dinosaurs gone wild, and Josh Brolin killing off half of all life in the galaxy, you might be thinking that watching a woman (and it’s not even Gal Gadot!) solving jigsaw puzzles would not exactly be scintillating drama.

But you might want to think again.

Marc Turtletaub, producer of such films as Little Miss Sunshine, Everything is Illuminated, and Safety Not Guaranteed, makes his directorial debut in this modest and quiet film, and has created a movie that’s not going to wow anybody with its special effects or action scenes, or the surprising twists of its plot, but that delivers a well-written and well-acted character study of people to care about rather than to fear for their lives. As a movie-goer, you do have to turn off your usual sensors and give some of your little-used empathetic skills a chance to work with Turtletaub’s creation.

The script, co-written by Polly Mann and Oren Moverman (The Messenger), is an adaptation of Natalia Smirnoff’s screenplay for the Argentine film Rompecabezas.The story focuses on Agnes (Kelly Macdonald of No Country for Old Men and TV’s Boardwalk Empire), an overworked and underappreciated suburban Connecticut housewife who in the opening scene is bustling about, picking up after people at a house party, including a broken dish which she tries to put back together, discovering there is a missing piece. She’s told not to “spoil things” by searching for the piece, then is shown getting a cake ready, putting candles on it, and walking out with the candles lit, at which everyone sings happy birthday—to her.

The birthday event encapsulates Agnes’s life: Life revolves around her husband and two grown sons and her occasional church meetings. Her husband Louie is an auto mechanic (David Denman from Logan Lucky and TV’s The Office), who expects her to do everything around the house, including the cleaning and shopping, and to have his dinner on the table when he comes home—and to be satisfied with all this. Why shouldn’t she be? And no, the movie is not set in 1958.

Her younger son, Gabe (Austin Abrams of TV’s The Americans), is about to graduate from high school and is trying to write an essay for his college apps about why he wants to go to college. Gabe has a girlfriend Nicky (Liv Hewson from TV’s Ashley Piper), who is a vegan and a Buddhist, or at least is affecting to be so, and provides Gabe the opportunity to belittle his mother for her lack of knowledge about the world beyond the confines of her home.

Her other son, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler of TV’s The Good Fight), is the one who takes after Agnes. With grades that prevented him from obtaining a college scholarship, Ziggy has been bullied into taking a job he detests working in his father’s garage, though he secretly longs for another career.

Agnes, hammered into a kind of submissive blandness in the film’s opening scenes, receives two significant gifts on her birthday: one is a cell phone, a gift she is completely indifferent to, seeing no particular use for it. If she never leaves the house, why does she need a phone when she has one at home? What decade did you say this was again? The other gift is a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that forms a map of the world. This she actually takes down one day and manages to put together in record time (noting, as she looks at it, where the city of Montréal is located—a place she’s always wanted to go).

Assembling the map of the world has the effect of opening the world up to Agnes. She calls the woman who sent her the gift to ask where she bought it, hoping to get another puzzle for herself now that she’s become interested in such things. She learns that she has to actually go into New York City to find the store. She hasn’t visited the city in many years, even though she lives in a suburb. But she takes the train in, finds the puzzle shop, buys two more large puzzles, and then is intrigued by a “partner wanted” sign, requested by a jigsaw puzzle “champion.”

Of course she follows up on this ad, and meets the champion puzzler at his home. His name is Robert (Irrfan Khan of Life of Pi), and he is in many ways Agnes’s polar opposite: He is wealthy and idle, having secured a patent that made him rich, a state that gives him plenty of time for puzzles. He previously won the national singles championships, and this year has entered the doubles, but his partner, his wife, has left him. He has no family and seemingly no obligations. He is often freaking out over news of disasters on TV, while Agnes never watches the news or pays any attention to world events. And while Agnes is a devout Roman Catholic, Robert believes that “Life’s just random.”

The relationship has plenty of time to develop over the course of several weeks of practice sessions during which Agnes visits Robert’s house every Monday and Wednesday. The two reveal a good deal about themselves as they get to know one another during these sessions, and Robert seems to understand Agnes far better than her husband or any of her family. This becomes clear in a scene in which he analyzes her attraction to puzzling, suggesting that her mind is quicker than those around her (something neither her husband or sons would ever guess or admit) and that her busy mind is quieted by the task of fitting the puzzle pieces into a pattern.

The story continues to develop from here, but probably not to a conclusion that you are likely to anticipate. By now, however, you are probably keenly aware of the metaphorical nature of the film’s title and its main activity of puzzling. Fitting the pieces of her life together is what Agnes’s journey is all about. The film even ultimately takes you back to the broken plate in the first scene, which Agnes tried to reassemble: When she finds he last piece, it is painful, literally and metaphorically.

The film is subtle, understated, and quiet. It relies on dialogue more than on action or CGI effects. As such it is something of an anomaly, especially in the summer months. But Macdonald turns in a winning performance, believably progressing from a downtrodden lump of clay at the beginning to an independent thinking force to be reckoned with by the end. Khan is fascinatingly attractive and enticing as the serpent figure in this modern Garden of Eden story, in which the paradise of Agnes’s home is a prison that is much better lost. As the unsuspecting Adam/Louie, Denman manages to come off as sympathetic in the end, a husband whose faults were the result of ignorance rather than malevolence.

Despite these fine performances, the film does have some flaws. In the first place, it is hard to reconcile Agnes’s home situation with contemporary American life: Her husband seems like a serious version of Ralph Kramden of the Honeymooners, and her own aversion to her new iPhone is something one might expect from a 90-year-old, but hardly from anyone younger. It’s quite possible that some of these things are the result of adapting an older Argentinian film, but still, if that is the case, the adaptation should have been smoother. There is also at least one glaring chronological error: Agnes and Robert are scheduled to meet on Monday and Wednesday, but in a climactic scene, she is shown at his house in a rendezvous that makes her late for an Easter Sunday celebration at her home. Nobody caught that?

Ultimately these flaws don’t sink the film, and it is still worth your time, especially to see MacDonald’s outstanding performance. Three Tennysons for this one.



Jay Ruud’s most recent novel, Lost in the Quagmire: The Quest of the Grail, will be available from the publisher on OCTOBER 15. You can preorder your copy direct from the publisher (Encircle Press) at http://encirclepub.com/product/lost-in-the-quagmire/You can also order an electronic version from Smashwords at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/814922


When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

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