Bryan Cranston has had an odd career after Breaking Bad. He either chooses serviceable character roles (e.g. Argo and Godzilla), or he chooses dubious leading roles that were previously unavailable to him (e.g. Trumbo and The Infiltrator). It’s as if he is looking for another breakout, and will not compromise with something that betrays his intelligence. These lead roles are for middling films – somewhere on the spectrum between an indie and a blockbuster – although the public does not have the appetite for character-driven genre pictures.
Cranston’s latest is Wakefield, and while it initially seems like another domestic drama, writer and director Robin Swicord is more experimental than she initially seems. Adapted from the eponymous E. L. Doctorow short story, Swicord uses the confines of short fiction to drill into her hero’s mind. The film’s fractured nature is a challenge for any actor, even one with Cranston’s talents, and so it’s inevitable the material raises more questions than it answers.
Cranston plays Howard Wakefield, an attorney who lives in an affluent, anonymous New York suburb. His evening commuter train breaks down, so he walks the rest of the way home. Right before he can walk through the front door, a raccoon catches his attention. He chases it into the attic above his garage, whereupon he notices his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and two daughters through the window. Howard cannot resist the appeal of voyeurism, and lingers in the attic.
Howard starts to wonder what might happen if he never goes home: the idea placates his ego since he feels unappreciated by his family. Rather than walk through the front door, Howard decides to watch his family for the evening, but an overnight reprieve runs longer than he expected. He spends days, weeks, and months sequestered in the attic, eating scraps and looking increasingly disheveled. He keeps his wits, however, and Wakefield is an ongoing probe of Howard’s bizarre, newly examined life.
It is easy for filmmakers to adapt short stories. Unlike a novel, a short story is not so expansive that it requires hours upon hours of running time. Wakefield separates itself from most short story adaptations, however, since it remains unapologetically literary. Most of the film features Cranston’s voice over. We hear Howard’s self-aggrandizing commentary as he observes his family and celebrates his deliberate poverty. There is little actual dialogue in Wakefield, and when it does happen, there is little more than a handful of lines. There are shots of Cranston’s face at various states of curiosity, and images of his family from afar – they start out heartbroken and go on with their lives. Sometimes Swicord visualizes Howard’s fantasy, like what might happen if he is caught, and these comic vignettes spice up the banality of his claustrophobic existence.
Howard is articulate, vain, delusional, and melancholy. He speaks like a mild-mannered man who has spent a lifetime reading The New Yorker. The vocabulary and depth of inquiry in Wakefield is deeper than most films, let alone independent films, and Cranston has little issue selling it. There is an irony between the voice over and the denigration of Howard’s appearance. He goes full Walden, living deliberately in the Thoreau sense of the word.
Wakefield’s nagging question, one that it never answers, is whether this breakdown is truly a betrayal of Howard’s family. Personally, I don’t see his arc as all that redemptive. Howard explains how he first seduced Diana, and the film ends with him going through similar motions, as if dominance is his top motivator. Then again, you might find Howard’s introspection moving, especially since he relearns to appreciate his family again for who they are. Swicord leaves the answer ambiguous – including the final shot – which transforms the film into an intellectual exercise, or a Rorschach test about the male ego. Whether that is appealing or something to avoid at all costs, I leave entirely up to you.