Robin Swicord’s Wakefield exists for one reason and one reason only: to give Bryan Cranston the opportunity to deliver a tour de force performance. He plays Howard Wakefield, a suburban man so bored with his life that he, almost on a whim, decides to remove himself from it. After fifteen years of marriage, his relationship to his wife has grown stale. He doesn’t seem to have any particular opinion about his job, positive or negative; it’s just a place he takes a train to everyday, and a train back from everyday. His twin daughters regard him with indifference when they regard him at all, which isn’t very often. He wanders through his life as a ghost.
Until one spring evening when there’s a disturbance in Wakefield’s routine. His train from work loses power, so he has to walk the untold number of miles home. On the threshold of his house, like a little suburban Cerberus, he sees a racoon, who seems to regard him with the indifference of his family. His attempts to shoo it away only drive it into the garage. He chases the pest to the upper level, and through the window sees his wife and daughters sitting down to dinner. He feels an emotional remove from them anyway, so sits down to just watch them…
…and stays there. Rising in the morning, Wakefield realises that he’s in trouble. How can he explain his absence last night? Will his wife think he’s cheating? He decides it’s best to stay in the garage, keeping tabs on his house with a dusty pair of binoculars. Hours become days. His wife drifts about the house, worriedly. She calls the cops to report a missing person, and invites family and friends over to organise a search. Wakefield spies all this from the confines of his self-imposed prison. Days become weeks, weeks become months. He sneaks out at night to forage for food from the trash, and urinates in bottles like a feral Howard Hughes.
Well, with his familial ennui and physical isolation, it may be more accurate to describe Howard Wakefield as Kevin Spacey from American Beauty mixed with a healthy dose of Tom Hanks from Cast Away. Unfortunately, Cranston doesn’t get a chance to really sink his teeth into his character the way Spacey and Hanks did in their respective films. He is able to passionately emote—writer/director Swicord wastes no time getting Cranston in the garage so he can react to his family moving on without him. But she presents Wakefield’s entire life situation—job, marriage, children—in a series of short snippets connected by a constant voiceover.
This is the biggest weakness of Swicord’s film: in voiceover, Wakefield tells the audience an absurd amount of information—things it would be more powerful to let Cranston, a more than capable actor, show us. What would actually compel a man to hole himself up in isolation and spy on his family like a voyeur, for months on end, at a distance? Clearly, such a man would be experiencing a suffocating unhappiness pervading his entire life. We never see this, however; Swicord rushes to get Wakefield in the garage, and then uses flashbacks to fill in narrative and character gaps. The voiceover, though, makes these flashbacks play like an illustrated short-story.
Perhaps because of these short snippets, Swicord never manages the tone of her film successfully. Material like this, which requires a considerable amount of disbelief suspension, works best as sincere high drama or comical farce. Wakefield’s tone shifts between comedy and drama in ways that simply don’t complement each other. An emotionally wrought flashback is likely to be followed by a jocular scene of Cranston’s nocturnal trash-hunting, and the light-hearted nature of the latter undercuts the emotions of the former, instead of acting as a counterpoint.
The death blow to Wakefield is the ending. I will defend to the death the conclusions to works such as The Sopranos and John Sayles’s Limbo, but such ambiguity doesn’t serve Swicord here. Instead of playing like a delicious ellipsis, the final moment feels like… she just wusses out. When the credits rolled, I had the uncomfortable feeling that I’d just wasted my time. Ultimately, Wakefield presents an interesting premise, and miscalculates the execution.