Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald has been stealing the show since her breakout role in 1996's "Trainspotting." She did it again in "No Country for Old Men" and most recently in "Black Mirror."
Her fierce ability to demand on-screen attention with little carries over tenfold in "Puzzle."
She plays Agnes, a Catholic wife, homemaker and a creature of habit and isolation. She's devoted to her husband, Louie (David Denman), and their grown sons, Ziggy and Gabe. Her gateway to something more comes unexpectedly in a jigsaw puzzle.
It's based on 2009's Argentinian film of the same name, and it takes place during Lent, no doubt a metaphor for Agnes' resurrection of self. This is one of the first big pictures for director Marc Turtletaub, whose producer credits run longer ("Little Miss Sunshine," "Loving").
Here, he opts for minimal effects and traditional camera work, perfect for the core of these grassroots characters. When Turtletaub's lens does show itself, scanning an apartment space or ceiling artwork, it's about Agnes' widening perspective.
Composer Dustin O'Halloran's subdued orchestrations are the perfect accompaniment. As Agnes opens up, O'Halloran adds more instruments to her simplistic piano composition.
The cinematography and music are positioned to let the performances shine, and oh, do they.
Bubba Weiler as Ziggy, the couple's oldest son is steadily withering like Agnes, and their intuitive, mother-son bond is a touching saving grace to disconnects elsewhere in the home.
While "Puzzle" has the elements for stereotypical, oppressive family dynamics, it's not that easy, and Turtletaub is smart to slowly illustrate this marriage.
Louie's no sexist oaf. As much as this type of character has been one-dimensional in other films, writers Polly Mann and Oren Moverman intelligently avoid it - a more interesting, and frankly tolerable, creative choice for today's sensibilities.
Denman's Louie is spot-on as the sturdy patriarch, his pudgy-cheeks and awestruck gazes communicate an innocence, fear and sincere confusion that is silently devastating.
When he and Ziggy return home to find Agnes doing a puzzle. "You forgot about dinner, did you forget about us?" he says. You see clearly that it's not about sustenance or even entitlement for this character; it's that love means dutiful and predictable giving, as he does himself.
Irrfan Khan as Agnes' puzzling partner Robert is refreshingly engaged, deadpan and emotive. Sometimes, his insights seem a little too spot on, but that doesn't deter. Khan's Robert is fluid in his movements, he drapes his arms onto his body, his eyes see Agnes without piercing her.
The supporting cast does its job expertly, but this is Macdonald's show.
She communicates depths in stillness through tiny quivers in her face and demeanor. When her internal changes manifest outward, her character completely transforms. It's amusing, sometimes, alarming. In a later scene, Turtletaub closes in on Macdonald's doe eyes and trembling lips. She switched from defiant to devastated in a split second, and you can't help but be arrested by her performance.
And there's so much more to this film.
"Puzzle" is an understated and elegantly executed character study, charting the internal mountains we move to piece ourselves back together.
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Irrfan Khan, David Denman
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Writers: Polly Mann, Oren Moverman, (original screenplay) Natalia Smirnoff
Rating: R for (light) language
Opening: Friday at Zinema 2