“What’s so sacrosanct about marriage and a family that you should have to live in it day after day?”
Haven’t we all wanted to get away from it all? To leave the rat race behind, drop what we’re doing, abandon whatever dead-end job we’re stuck in, and head out into the unknown. To leave it all behind and embark on an adventure, or at the very least a leisurely getaway, perhaps to Europe, perhaps to some tropical island. Or how about to our own garages?
That’s as far as Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) gets in Wakefield, the literate, somewhat dreary drama from writer-director Robin Swicord. Adapted from a short story by E. L. Doctorow, and perhaps adhering too close to the text, Wakfield follows Cranston’s character, a businessman seething with bitterness and undone by his own ennui. One night, while taking the train home from the city to the suburbs, a blackout shuts everything down, including Howard’s own perpetual motion.
When Howard finally arrives at his large, comfortable-looking suburban home, he hesitates. After chasing a raccoon into his detached garage, Howard happens to glance out a porthole window looking directly down into his kitchen. There he sees his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and two daughters waiting for him. A devious idea pops into Howard’s head: instead of returning home, he’ll wait it out, making his family wonder and worry where he is in the process. He ends up falling asleep in the process, and when he awakes the next morning he makes an even more unpleasant decision: rather than explain to his wife where he was all night, he continues to hide out in the garage, abandoning his life in the process. As the months stretch on, Howard grows more and more to resemble a homeless vagrant, all while spying on his confused family.
It’s clear right from the start that Howard Wakefield is not a pleasant man, and Cranston — who spent five seasons of Breaking Bad playing a similarly toxic family man — sinks his teeth firmly into the character. Much of the film is simply comprised of Cranston spying on his family, yet the actor is so compelling that he makes it all watchable. In flashbacks, we learn about Howard and Diana’s tumultuous relationship: he could only become interested in sex if she played along with his roleplaying scenario in which he caught her flirting with other men. In a way, Howard has been watching his family — from the outside looking in — his whole life. Now he gets to do it literally, and he takes a twisted, gleeful satisfaction in watching how Diana handles his disappearance.
The set-up of Wakefield is intriguing, and Andrei Bowden Schwartz’s lush, shadowy cinematography is suitably haunting. But this very much feels like material that works perfectly in short story format as opposed to on film. At 106 minutes, Wakefield feels almost twice as long, all due to how inert the film is. Like Cranston’s character, it mostly sits there, waiting for a revelation that never arrives. Writer-director Swicord is able to inject some energy here and there, such as a sequence where Howard is chased by some overly aggressive trash pickers, but for the most part Wakefield is in dire need of life. Thankfully, both Cranston and Garner do exemplary work here. Cranston gets to have the most fun with his meatier role, but Garner, who remains more of an enigma to both Howard and us, is commanding in her part as the put-upon wife. As a showcase for these two actors, Wakefield is worth a cursory glance. But there’s not much here worth spying on.