Everybody has daydreamed about walking out on his life — driving off into the distance and leaving everything he knew behind. There’s something very cleansing about this fantasy, a comforting belief that if we could have a second crack at life, we wouldn’t screw it up the way we did the first time.
But such longing also comes with darkness — a belief that, if we did walk out, all the people around us would collapse into pieces, unable to go on without us. It’s a double delusion in which we overestimate both our ability to correct our past mistakes and our significance in the world.
This is essentially the dilemma in the new character drama Wakefield. Based on a story by Ragtime author E.L. Doctorow, the movie tells the strange story of Howard Wakefield, a big-city attorney who, just as he does every night, is taking the train home so he can be with his wife and children. But this night turns out to be different: A power outage on his train temporarily strands him and, presumably, shocks him out of his comfortable, mindless routine. And so, as Howard walks toward his house, he decides that he can’t bring himself to go inside. Instead, he sneaks away to the family’s garage, hiding out in the second-story attic. He’s not running away, exactly — he’s just taking a break. And, during this hiatus, he’s going to spy on his family through the attic window, observing how they react to his disappearance.
A lot of actors could’ve starred in Wakefield, but it’s perfect that writer-director Robin Swicord cast Bryan Cranston to portray this inscrutable man. After all, the Emmy-winning actor made his name playing a bright, seemingly ordinary guy with an ability to talk himself into doing all types of despicable things to feed his ego. Breaking Bad’s Walter White was a more extreme variation of the hubris that powers Howard’s decisions, but Cranston brings the same poisonous self-justification to both roles: He has a gift for characters who pity themselves so much they don’t realize what cretins they are.
For much of Wakefield, Howard speaks directly to the audience through voiceover, demeaning his suburban existence and rationalizing his selfishness. “They’ve hardly been abandoned,” he says callously of his wife and children, who have no idea what’s become of him. “I’m right here.” But he’s present in a way that only serves his needs. As the months go by, Howard gets more bedraggled as he lets his beard and hair grow — he’s living in the most extreme version of a man-cave ever, secure in the knowledge that his wife and daughters will never check for him up there because they considered the attic repellant.
Initially, Howard takes sick pleasure in watching his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) freak out about his vanishing. As we learn through flashbacks, Howard has fostered a contentious relationship with Diana over time. Where first he courted her, stealing her away from his best friend, Howard has eventually come to believe that she doesn’t love him enough. His escape is, in part, a way to punish her, and Diana’s tears and anxiety are his dark revenge on a woman he views as not sufficiently loyal.
What’s clever about Swicord’s film, however, is that we don’t really know if that’s accurate — or, frankly, if anything else Howard tells us is true or not. Diana is always viewed from afar as Howard peeps at her through windows. As a result, Wakefield can be seen as a sharp critique of an egomaniac’s worldview. Everything in this movie is filtered through his experience, his biases and his feelings. Wakefield is pure, uncut Howard — and the more time we spend with him, the more we detest him.
The movie has surprises in store for Howard, though. After a while, much to his chagrin, Diana and her daughters learn to move on. A new man comes into her life. Normalcy returns. A tougher film would’ve let Howard stew in his own resentment; he’s certainly got it coming. Instead, unfortunately, Wakefield allows him to start realizing the error of his ways. Maybe he does need these people after all. Maybe Diana really did love him if he’d ever bothered to notice.
Cranston is so perfect at playing a deluded heel that it’s disappointing to watch the character have a change of heart and stumble toward redemption. Because the bleaker message is the more interesting one: If you decide to get away from it all, maybe the only thing your absence will do is help your loved ones realize they’re better off without you.