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The suburbs are hell, or so Hollywood likes to remind us, from the Tom Hanks classic The ‘burbs to the Oscar-winning American Beauty, living the dream is more attuned to a nightmare. So it is with Wakefield, an usual take on the theme, that of a man who breaks down and takes to isolation in this wickedly sharp observation of a marriage in spiral and a husband’s peculiar solution.
After another irritating day at the office and through the trudges of a routine commute, Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) arrives home to a pesky raccoon scrambling about the garage. He chases it up into the attic space above and once there, peers through the circular window to the house across the drive to the bay window where he sees his lovely wife of 15 years, Diana (Jennifer Garner) and their young twin daughters eating dinner and wondering where he is. Commenting to us about what he suspects is running through their minds, he builds a story that it would be better if he just stayed the night and avoid confrontation. However, when morning comes, he finds the ruse easy to continue and suddenly, he’s decided to stay and his experiment becomes a distorted way of life that goes on for days, weeks, and then months.
Directed by Robin Swicord and based on the short story by the late E. L. Doctorow, Wakefield is a story of descent, the decline of a man who upends himself from the “prison” of his life that in turns awakens him more to it. Problem is, by letting go, he’s done the same again though this is not so clear to him, he making routine out of his castle in the attic, complete with food scrounged from nearby dumpsters and a toilet made of a bucket and Glad bags. He becomes a creature of no rules, a pathetic hermit convinced by his own story.
The idea of watching an actor sit by a window and narrate his experience while watching others might seem like a lesson in boredom but not so here with a tight script and a great sense of inclusion by Cranston whose delivers is wonderfully acerbic at first before he lets it age and ripen, becoming a mix of melancholy and regret. We learn the details of his past through a few flashbacks about the behaviors of his family, including how he met Diana, and because of his what he’s done, essentially disappear, we also witness the limbo his family now exists in, even as they are unknowingly carefully watched. Howard has some serious issues and though Swicord keeps this serious, there are moments that amuse, especially as a bedraggled, bearded and scraggly Cranston rummages through the neighborhood looking for scraps. But there’s no escaping the drama of it all, and it’s impressive that it remains all so compelling.
Kudos to Garner for her distant performance as well, she spending more that three quarters of the film seen behind a window in silence. She has a terrific presence in the story and while Howard narrates what he is sure she is thinking, we see much in her face and shoulders that betray much more. It’s good work. Cranston of course deserves high praise as well, as does Swicord for maintaining balance in a film that could easily have toppled. While it has flaws with some of its flashbacks and the narration bleeds into moments that would work without it, Wakefield is nonetheless an entertaining experiment.
Movie description: Wakefield is a 2017 drama about a man who has a nervous breakdown, causing him to leave his wife and live in his attic for several months.
Director(s): Robin Swicord
Actor(s): Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Ian Anthony Dale