Based on a short story by E.L. Doctorow (which, in turn, is a re-telling of the story by Nathaniel Hawthorne) and shot over just twenty days, “Wakefield” is a film about Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston (“Drive” (2011), “The Infiltrator” (2016)), a busy city lawyer, who is silently enduring a personal crisis. On a daily basis, he is commuting to and from NYC to meet his clients, until one evening, his schedule is disrupted by a power outage. At this point, Howard begins to reflect on himself, on his place in life, and on his surroundings. Confronting personal issues usually takes time, and he wastes no time hiding from his family in the attic of his garage next door. This location is a perfect place for a hide-out since it provides him with a perfect position for the close surveillance and monitoring of his own house. Directed by a female director Robin Swicord (the screenwriter behind such great films as “Little Women” (1994) and “Memoirs of Geisha” (2005)), “Wakefield” is deeper and more interesting than first meets the eye. Combining an in-depth psychological character study with an interesting narrative structure, the film manages to deliver both a satisfying and a peculiar cinematic experience, largely driven by Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner’s committed performances.
What is immediately striking about this film is that its narrative does not give much away in the beginning, and uncovers Wakefield’s turbulent family life and personal insecurities slowly, adding elements of intrigue and suspense. This is not about a person who just decided to leave his family and live in his garage attic. At first, this is just about a man who has had a stressful day at work, arrives at home late due to a power outage on the railway and, because he cannot face another angry confrontation with his wife, ventures to his garage. So far, nothing out of ordinary. It is not even surprising that this same man should decide to sleep overnight at his garage for the fear of an angry dispute with his wife in the morning. This he does. Then, Wakefield decides to retreat to his garage attic for a longer period of time, and the longer he stays away, the more difficult it becomes for him to return to his normal family life – “The plot thickens” as he says. The reasons why he has decided to abandon his home life also turn out to be more complex, and if the character played by Richard Gere in “Arbitrage” (2012) deals with his existential mid-life crisis by having a younger mistress, Wakefield has a more elaborate plan in mind.
The audience slowly learns more about Wakefield: about his eccentricities, about his pride, about his suburban life disillusionment, and all this insight gained because Wakefield shares his thoughts with the audience through his off-screen narration. His imaginary scenarios are presented alongside his real-life events. In that way, the audience gets to know the man behind the “unlikable, arrogant and competitive lawyer” aspect of his personality, behind his “selfish, controlling and jealous husband” presentation, and behind his “distant and unemotional father” façade. Thus, slowly, it becomes not so demented anymore – at least from Wakefield’s point of view – to ignore his household for the moment, and take a breather. The film perhaps takes some inspiration from “Castaway” (2000), and even borrows a scene from “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), but the main character in “Wakefield” does not resort to an isolated island or to jail-time to re-discover himself, find a meaning to life, or taste real freedom. Wakefield’s retreat is completely self-imposed and more modest, but in some way revolutionary in its own way. Like the main character says in “Fight Club” (1999), “it is only after we’ve lost everything, that we’re free to do anything”. So, Wakefield says in the film: “It is not difficult to run away, people ditch their families all the time”. Instead, what he does is something no one expects – hides almost in plain sight, while for everyone else disappearing without a trace.
From a philosophical viewpoint, the film is also a delight. As a result of the off-screen narration, it somehow becomes deeply personal and reflective. Wakefield is undergoing an existential crisis, a mid-life crisis, a crisis of…well, Wakefield. It is not the kind of a mental disorientation experienced by Mel Gibson’s character in Jodie Foster’s film “The Beaver” (2011), where the protagonist adopts a hand puppet to deal with his problems. In “Wakefield”, the path of transformation is almost too simple, but at the same time strangely poetic. It is a drive to isolation and introspection to escape one’s unbearable existence in the present state. Wakefield says at one point: “[in the suburbs] we do not live in nature…that’s the point with the suburbs, you live apart from humans”, and at another: “I have not abandoned my family…I have abandoned myself”. Echoing probably such films as “American Beauty” (1999), “The Virgin Suicides” (1999) and “Revolutionary Road” (2008), which expose dissatisfaction with suburban environment and its dark, hidden, freedom-restraining and conformity-imposing aspects, “Wakefield” also tries to show that feelings of emptiness and unease one may feel surrounded by closed doors, but so near open nature, and the fact that sometimes the real truth is stranger than any fiction.
Undoubtedly, the film holds itself on the fascinating character study and on the brilliant performance delivered by Cranston. However, it is not an easy task to sell this study to the audience because Howard Wakefield is so unlikable as a character. It is only too clear in the film that Wakefield discovers himself and satisfies his own inner compulsions only at the expense of directing hurting others. He becomes a hermit in the attic of his garage, but, at that point, he distresses his family, causing hurt and confusion all around. From his window of the garage attic Wakefield also spies and comments on the behaviour of those in the house, and his comments are far from flattering. The audience is left with little choice but to partake in Cranston’s “game of amusement” as he ridicules the behaviour of those present in his own home. The fact that the audience becomes silent conspirators in his ominous hiding is maybe part of the film’s thrill. What saves the film here is that, as time passes, the sympathy for Wakefield grows, even if Wakefield never manages to become a truly sympathetic character in the film.
Jennifer Garner in the role of Wakefield’s wife, Diana, gives a very good performance. Garner’s character is seen almost entirely from Wakefield’s point of view, and the picture that the husband paints of his wife is not altogether favourable. The audience is constantly left wondering whether Wakefield’s perception of his wife and their relationship rings any truth. For example, in the film, on seeing that her husband does not return the next day from his work, Diana naturally calls the police, but Wakefield, hiding in the attic, has a more sinister explanation for her actions of “concern” and thinks she does so to “humiliate him further”.
Intriguing, suspenseful, funny, heart-warming moments? “Wakefield” has got it all covered. There are a couple of instances in the film when Howard Wakefield is nearly being discovered by his family, and because he befriends two neighbouring autistic children, the story turns its sentimental side and becomes strangely different from what it may be initially thought. In the end, the film keeps you wondering whether there really be the end to Wakefield’s hideout escapade, and if it will be a sobering awakening for everyone. The film is, of course, not without its faults and it could have developed some of its interesting scenes further, for example, involving Wakefield’s wife Diana and her past suitor. Also, in real life, Wakefield would have been discovered sooner, if only as a result of his mobile phone, and besides, even though there is a right to any adult person to just disappear if they choose to do so, it is highly unlikely the police would not have first looked in all the family’ property, in case Wakefield had an accident somewhere, before letting the matter pass.
Insightful and contemplative, “Wakefield” sends its existential-philosophical message across well, largely thanks to the well-presented character study and Cranston’s powerful performance. Through Wakefield’s field of vision, the audience becomes silent accomplices in a disturbing and claustrophobic game of hide-and-seek with a background commentary provided by Wakefield himself. The film also somehow manages to score high on other fronts: Garner’s performance is exceptionally good, and the film has poignantly funny moments, elements of suspense and a well-fitted, beautiful soundtrack. 8/10