Film Review: Wakefield

Riveting character study of a disintegrating upper-crust suburban husband-father secretly hiding out for months in his carriage-house garage attic and feeling omnipotent as he invisibly observes his family.
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The sterility of wealth, the stultifying nothingness of suburban American life and its deleterious impact on the upper-middle-class male is a trope so dated—Updike, Cheever, Yates said it all half a century ago—it’s hard to fathom how a film like Wakefield got off the ground at all.

In fact, it took writer-director Robin Swicord (The Jane Austin Book Club) eight years to launch. Nonetheless, it is a compelling portrait of one emotionally disenfranchised, disintegrating Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston), who is at once pitiful and repellent.

Adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s short story (published in The New Yorker in 2008) that was in turn inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 story, the movie is literary to its core—it feels like a short story—and largely unfolds inside Wakefield’s mind as he observes, assesses and recollects; one narcissist’s heady interior monologue from beginning to end.

A high-earning New York City litigator, Wakefield is commuting home to Westchester one night when a power outage forces him to walk a long distance back to his house. He arrives late, exhausted and irritated, his annoyance further fueled at the sight of a raccoon skulking around the yard before darting into the carriage-house garage and up the stairs into the attic space. Wakefield dashes after him. From the attic window he observes his teenage daughters and his beautiful wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) cleaning up the dinner dishes. Watching Diana reminds him of an unpleasant squabble they had the previous night, bringing to mind his souring 15-year marriage, often marred by his jealousy.

To avoid Diana, he decides to wait in the attic until she goes to bed. But he falls asleep and when he wakes the next morning he’s sure that Diana will not believe what happened and so he delays his return. Time passes and he finds himself enjoying his role as a voyeur, studying his wife’s irritation at his absence morphing into concern as the police arrive along with his colleagues, friends and neighbors, all of whom are trying to grapple with his unexplained disappearance.

In a spirit of experimentation, Wakefield decides to remain hidden in the garage attic and as one night leads to the next, he survives by foraging through the neighborhood garbage. Months go by—passing seasons nicely telescoped with pumpkins, Christmas trees, etc.—and despite momentary lapses the pleasure of spying on his family while he remains invisible and thus in some ways omnipotent only escalates with time. “Who hasn’t had the impulse to put life on hold for a moment?” he asks himself rhetorically.

An arrogant man, Wakefield has great fun mocking and mimicking everyone. His hitherto suppressed misanthropy runs rampant. In his previous life he felt silenced and scrutinized. When his wife phoned he grumbled about her surveillance of him, allowing her call to go to voicemail. But the tables have now turned as he constantly peers in at her, binoculars in hand.

With dirty, unkempt hair and long, blackened fingernails, he’s able to wander around the streets unrecognizable to everyone. A local kid views him as a beggar and hands him some loose change. His only human contact is with a couple of severely challenged youngsters living in a group home nearby. The more humiliated and isolated he becomes, the freer he becomes. He is arguably unhinged, though that would be reductive.

Wakefield grows more in tune with the primitive natural world. Lying on the floor in a heatless room, its roof riddled with holes allowing icy snow to trickle down on him, he tries to stay warm beneath thin blankets. In the warmer weather he’s assaulted by mosquitoes, and the raccoon, which he previously swatted, is now his companion. It’s another ironic twist of fate. Earlier, he snidely remarked how unnatural nature was in the suburbs. He was indisputably protected from the elements.

Wakefield is not a class-conscious movie, but it’s difficult to ignore the opulent comfort in our protagonist’s community, especially as the once wealthy and now impoverished Wakefield stares into the large, gracious homes and more poignantly as he uncovers perfectly good food that has been tossed into the garbage.

But let’s not forget that Wakefield’s crisis emerges from a position of privilege. Who else but the well-heeled can afford the luxury of thinking about, let alone acting upon, existential angst and pull it off with such resolve?

His turning point occurs when he suspects Diana may be seeing a former rival who has now surfaced in the house more than once. Wakefield liked thinking of Diana in a state of limbo, without the freedom to cultivate a new romance that comes with widowhood or divorce. It’s a detail, but she never removes her wedding ring, though neither does he.

Wakefield’s defining flaw is his inability to grasp the experiences of another human being separate from himself. If Diana is dating his formal rival, Wakefield has been defeated. If she has cut down on purchasing pricey items, her sacrifice reflects poorly on him as a provider. At no point does he feel any compassion for his wife or guilt at the anguish he has caused her as she wonders where he is and what happened to him. Even more appalling—and credibility-defying—is his apparent indifference to his young daughters.

In the Hawthorne story, set in 19th-century London and altogether more mythic in tone, Wakefield has no children, which focuses the narrative and makes so much more emotional sense. Similarly, Hawthorne’s Wakefield is an enigmatic figure, devoid of backstory, stated or implied motivations. The distance of time and the lack of exposition pack a stronger punch than the more literal and fleshed-out Doctorow story, and by extension Swicord’s film, whose adaptation is on-point. That said, they are faithful to Hawthorne’s vision of Wakefield as “remarkable a freak as may be found in the whole list of human oddities,” even as the character is updated, Americanized and played by one of the most relatable actors onscreen, whether he’s tackling the hapless child-man dad in “Malcolm in the Middle” or the richly textured Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” Wakefield is removed from either character yet shares elements with both.

Despite the film’s cop-out ending, it’s for the most part a riveting character study that draws you in even as it turns you off. The repulsion informs the seduction.

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