By Elias Savada.
There is a hidden recluse swirling around our theaters (and video on demand), and his name is Wakefield. Please go find him.
While Howard Wakefield seems normal enough when first spotted in the hustle and bustle crowds pushing air about the streets of New York City, his day (and many others that follow) will be anything but ordinary. Heading home to his upper middle class, suburban family (wife, two kids), the attorney’s face is drawn into a steely, focused, and somewhat fatigued stare as he heads for his train in Grand Central Station. It’s his routine, no doubt. One he has repeated thousands of times over his 15-year-marriage and partnership in a prestigious law firm. Buy a small pastry (butting in line), grab a window seat (no friends for chit-chat), and dictate legal mumbo jumbo into his iPhone as the train rumbles into the night. Then stare out into the dark void along the tracks. Cue the power failure.
This guy needs a vacation. Bryan Cranston, who plays him so marvelously, thinks so, too. But, as with so much else in this small, powerful work, any holiday he takes will take on a much broader meaning.
All this literal darkness gets Howard to thinking and talking (to himself). That’s his voice we hear throughout the film, but he barely exchanges any dialogue with the rest of the cast (best anti-ensemble?), except in flashback sequences and some unsettling, lighthearted fantasy scenes. As he approaches home, Howard makes a detour and finds himself in the attic above his family’s detached garage. The trophy wife (Jennifer Garner) and family can be viewed from a large ornate window in the unheated and unplumbed loft. Impulsively and irrationally, he stays there, cut off from his family, his work, their world. For the entire movie. “Who hasn’t had the impulse to just put their life on hold for a moment?” Howard asks us. And you might query back: Who is this guy?
Wakefield began life as a 2008 short story by E.L. Doctorow, who based it on an 1835 piece of the same title by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It has been courageously adapted by director Robin Swicord as a haunting examination of broken relationships caused by one man’s fractured ego. Primarily a screenwriter (Memoirs of a Geisha, Little Women), Swicord toiled for over a decade on the award-winning The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, on which she shared story credit. Wakefield is her second feature as a director. The script (she likes the human condition) could have used some tightening and some of the lesser characters and some of the themes (voyeurism vs. exhibitionism) could have been eliminated. Yet Cranston is so perfect in his role that I wouldn’t mind knowing more about his character’s warped sensibilities.
As members of Diana’s concerned circle – police, the widow Babs (Beverly D’Angelo), and others – hold their escalating vigil in the kitchen, Howard pushes forth with his running commentary and bickering for us to hear. It’s filled with varying degrees of rage, consternation, contemplation, sarcasm, lunacy, and a few other items in the what’s-what of emotions.
Slowly the backstory sequences provide glimpses of the motivations that led up to his current condition. Some of the deceptions and shenanigans that Howard remember flesh out the relationship between Diana and Dirk Morrison (Jason O’Mara), Howard’s best friend.
All the while Swicord’s camera (via director of photography Andrei Bowden Schwartz) is on a constant, fly-on-the-wall stakeout. There is some very strong imagery here, driving the story forcefully home, including where a bare chested, barefooted, disheveled Howard stops on the side of rain-soaked road next to a dumpster. He’s stuffing something from an opened, discarded food (dog?) can into his mouth, hidden behind a unruly, gray-specked beard. Across the street is a raccoon munching on the remains of another raccoon. I can see Swicord telling the actor to pretend he’s an urban coyote.
Wakefield is a sad, mesmerizing tale of Howard playing god, looking down on his family. For Howard, it’s a pastime of sorts, like the several board games that are among the family’s artifacts that clutter his new surroundings. The melancholy yet powerful score is from Aaron Zigman, who also worked with the director on her debut feature, 2007’s The Jane Austen Book Club.
Cranston is extremely impressive as a damaged, resentful soul – a man second guessing his own worst fear. Himself.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).