It was not pre-meditated, Howard Wakefield’s snap decision to remove himself from his family. As he explains to us in the ongoing narration of WAKEFIELD, rather it was an accumulation of minor discontents culminating in a particularly bad commute and a raccoon with a disconcerting assertion of proprietary rights. Thus begins an existential consideration of self that leads Manhattan lawyer Howard (Bryan Cranston), to ponder what has brought him to a prosperous but empty life in the suburbs of New York, and the marriage built on all the wrong reasons.
Perched in a storage room above the garage, Howard watches his wife of fifteen years, Diana (Jennifer Garner), and their twin daughters from a comfortable remove, peering through the windows as Diana goes through the stages of anger, grief, and acceptance over a husband gone without a trace. And as he does so, seeing them all go on without him, his umbrage over being taken for granted before leaving, and having so little impact afterwards, brings resentment and vitriol before giving way to something far more complicated. Without the daily interaction, he can finally see them for themselves, and, more disconcerting, see himself without the defensive armor of that umbrage, and his own place in the daily skirmishes that his family life had become.
Cranston is magnificent in a master class of a performance. As Howard’s state devolves into that of a homeless man with a nominal roof over his head, he is a wealth of complex, often conflicting states of being. The self-pity borne of hubris, the martyr complex that finally shows him the meaning of humanity, the lethally sharp humor, and the heartrending moments of clarity as he hunkers down in his attic perch, imagining fanciful scenarios of retribution or reunion, spewing bile about his imposingly coiffed mother-in-law (Bevery D’Angelo), or reliving his courtship of Diana as a competition with his best friend (Jason O’Mara). It is essentially a one-man show, with Howard setting the scenes that play out in his imagination, either adding dialogue to the mime shows he sees through the windows, or memories that frame his point of view.
In adapting the 2008 short story by E. L. Doctorow, Robin Swicord has struck the delicate balance between showing us not only what Wakefield thinks happened, or is happening, at any given moment, but also the suggestion that there is more to the story. By doing so, this become more than a modern parable of a man retreating from life, it is a gentle chiding of the audience about very human failing of tunnel vision of which we are all guilty.
Seeing all he is missing, by going from gloating to nostalgia, Howard is burdened with the gift of life well examined when it may be too late to use such wisdom wisely, and he is then stumped about what to do next, and it is this that gives WAKEFIELD its dramatic punch. Adrift, he may be only a few yards from the family he has come to cherish, but the gulf he has put between them, before and after his retreat, is insurmountable. The longing, the close calls, the dangers, and the unexpected compassion Howard experiences has, in Cranston’s hands, an emotional force equal to the most elaborate visual effect, or incendiary car crash. This is a film of primal intensity, and of the most aetherial of metaphysical prospects.