Director: Robin Swicord
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O'Mara, Beverly D'Angelo, Ian Anthony Dale, Ellery Sprayberry, Victoria Bruno
MPAA Rating: (for some sexual material and language)
Running Time: 1:46
Release Date: 5/19/17 (limited); 5/26/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 25, 2017
The story of Wakefield is so strange that it seems it could be based on a true story. For the curious, it's not, as far as I can tell. Instead, it's based on a short story of the same name by E.L. Doctorow (itself a modern spin on another story of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne), but it's still one of those tales that is so uncharacteristic of "normal" human behavior that it feels like it must have happened. Maybe it did. Maybe someone is living out the story of the film right now in one way or another. We wouldn't know.
This is to say that writer/director Robin Swicord's film exists and works on two levels. There's a certain level of realism to it, in that we can understand why its main character does what he does and also accept that it's within the realm of what a person might do—under certain, extreme circumstances. The premise, though, is also extreme enough that there's a certain degree of absurdism to the character's behavior. That gives the film the quality of something akin to a fable, too.
As to that story, it's about a man who decides, seemingly out of the blue, not to return home one day after work. He technically returns to his house, but he doesn't come back home, if you catch my drift. He has had enough of his life, so he finds a cozy spot in the attic of his garage and decides to take a seat.
The man is Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston). At first, his decision appears to be one of chance, following a roaming raccoon into the upper level of the garage. He has been ignoring calls from his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner), who has dinner waiting for him. Instead of going inside, he watches his wife and their two daughters (played by Ellery Sprayberry and Victoria Bruno) from the attic window as they wait for him, become impatient, and go about with their meal. Before going to bed, Diana takes Howard's plate outside and unceremoniously dumps the contents into the garbage.
This might be the point at which Howard decides that he won't be leaving the attic anytime soon. The decision has been building for a while, we gather, even before he specifically chose the garage attic as his hiding place. He's an unhappy man, traveling back and forth, day after day, between the city, where he works as an attorney, and his house in the suburbs. The train ride is a sardine can of the impersonal and the apathetic. He is so clearly disconnected from everything and everyone around him that trying to escape his life must have been only a matter of time, even if he hadn't worked out the specifics in any thoughtful way.
Through a series of flashbacks and the constant thoughts of Howard's stream-of-consciousness narration, Swicord's screenplay keeps peeling back layers of the character's misery. He's jealous of other men around his wife. He assumes it's a game that the two of them play, since his insecure sniping after seeing her talking to another man always seems to lead to sex. Shortly before his escape to the attic, Diana makes it clear that it's not a game for her. She definitely doesn't appreciate the way he tries to control her state of undress in the privacy of their bedroom, lest anyone be looking into the window.
He is convinced that his wife and daughters have formed an alliance against him, with his mother-in-law (played by Beverly D'Angelo) as an occasional conspirator. He's never included in the family conversations, and he knows that the trio have those talks. Howard says he has spent plenty of time listening in on them through the windows of the house.
There's plenty of projection of his own thoughts and behavior on others, considering that he worries about people spying on Diana when he's the one who actually spies on her. As for his jealousy, there's the story of how Howard ended up dating Diana, seeing her as a prize to win away from his supposed friend Dirk (Jason O'Mara) by igniting the friend's jealousy. The worst of what Howard sees in others—whether real or imagined—is a reflection of his own thoughts and feelings in some way.
Now, sitting in the garage, he takes the opportunity to observe on his family, with a handy set of binoculars and an active imagination to guess what they're saying, and see how they react to the fact that he isn't around anymore. As the hours go by, the police become involved. As the days pass, he becomes local news. As the weeks progress, he starts to notice that people are becoming accustomed to his absence, and as the months unfold, Howard might as well have never existed.
The absurdity, of course, lies in the timeframe, as well as the lengths to which Howard goes to remain hidden (There's little concern for personal hygiene, obviously). It seems unreal, especially in the way that Swicord and cinematographer Andrei Bowden Schwartz shoot the suburban surroundings at night with precise key lights surrounded by the dimness of quiet streets, driveways, and windows.
There's clearly a fable here about the extremes to which people will go to escape a sense of disconnect, hoping to discover some connection to anything. It's emphasized by Swicord's decision not to put any simple psychiatric analysis on her main character, whether it be a nervous breakdown or some midlife crisis. The harsh reality of the character comes from Cranston's performance. The actor doesn't want us to like Howard or even to hate him. He is after some understanding of the man and his dilemma, and Wakefield provides that, in all of his gloom and hypocrisy.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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