Spoilers ahead. Movies about women finding their voice, breaking free of stereotypes, and feeling empowered are always inspiring. But even better is when a film goes one step further by not only showing women learning a thing or two, but featuring men getting their own much-needed lessons. In the new movie Puzzle, Kelly Macdonald stars as Agnes, a traditional Connecticut housewife who discovers a skill and passion for jigsaw puzzles. This newfound talent ignites a flame in her, and her journey from timid mouse to assertive, outspoken traveler is delightful to watch. But what gives Puzzle (out now) an extra edge is how it explores the gender dynamics of both women and men, because as Agnes makes feminist discoveries for herself, she also inspires the men in her life to reconsider their ingrained toxic masculinity.
As the film opens, Agnes is hosting a birthday party. She clears plates and cleans up after guests while her husband, Louie (David Denman) smokes a stogie outside with his pals. From that situation, you'd think it was Louie's party she's so frantically attending to, but once Agnes brings out the cake she made from scratch, and the guests start singing to her, it becomes clear that she's doing all the work for herself. Her whole life is like that — grocery shopping, laundry, cooking, and family upkeep that falls entirely on her shoulders. But one of Agnes' birthday gifts is a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which she completes in one afternoon so quickly that she tears it up and starts again. Her new interest burns into a steady passion until she finds herself sneaking into New York City to practice for a puzzle competition alongside her new partner, Robert (Irrfan Khan).
The puzzle as a metaphor for Agnes' internal disarray is an obvious one, but that doesn't negate how interesting it is to watch her blossom and realize she has knowledge, skills, and power that went previously unacknowledged. Agnes' husband and two sons take her for granted, for sure, but her feminist assertions that come along with her budding puzzle talent feel less like realizations and more like they'd been stewing in her mind all along and just needed something to, well, put the pieces together.
But the more interesting this about Puzzle is that, while Agnes is realizing her potential outside of being a housewife, her husband and one of her sons both get a little education into the dangers of toxic masculinity. For older son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), it means realizing that he no longer wants to work at his father's garage and would instead like to explore cooking. Yet when Agnes, weeks into her new outspoken nature, suggests that Ziggy look into cooking school, Louie scoffs. Despite the fact that professional kitchens and the restaurant industry are dominated by men, "Cooking isn't very manly", in Louie's mind. But instead of recoiling, Ziggy and Agnes both stand their ground, and Ziggy's self-confidence is a direct result of watching his mother find her own.
For Louie, meanwhile, a self-reflective exploration of toxic masculinity is a bigger hill to climb. He blurts out ludicrously misogynistic phrases like, "Where's dinner?" and "Who is filling your head with new ideas?" but not without a twinge of understanding his own ridiculousness. When Agnes' puzzling becomes too much for him and he ruins one of her puzzles, he has a moment of self-actualization, albeit in anger. "Do you know what my father would have done to my mother?!" he asks, simultaneously realizing the words the just came out of his mouth. A look of despair, shock, and disappointment in himself washes over his face before he declares, "I am not my father."
It's not a total 180, but Louie's moment of reflection is still an important revelation. He realizes that his father was exactly the kind of old fashioned, frightening, patriarchal figure he doesn't want to turn into, and that growing up in that household created in him expectations of Agnes that he isn't sure he even wants. And, most significantly, Louie learns that he doesn't have to be this way.
Puzzle's charming story might seem like a simple one of a woman coming into her own. But the film's exploration of toxic masculinity shows how often its deconstruction is interconnected with feminism, and it makes for a more powerful story than than the movie otherwise might've been.