Wakefield

On the surface, Wakefield is an incisive look at a marriage in turmoil as seen through the eyes of an ordinary man enduring an apparent midlife crisis.

Yet there’s more to this provocative and mildly unsettling character study, based on an E.L. Doctorow short story, that provides an acting showcase for Bryan Cranston as a man who’s difficult to like but more difficult to dismiss.

Cranston plays the title role as Howard, a successful Manhattan attorney whose personal life is crumbling behind the scenes — at least in his eyes. So one day, without notice or direct provocation, rather than going home to his wife (Jennifer Garner) and two daughters, he impulsively withdraws to the attic of his suburban garage, and spies on his family through a window.

As they worry, days turn into weeks and months, and Howard remains a recluse, almost adopting the life of a bum as he scrounges for food and clothing. Along the way, he questions his intentions and whether it’s possible to rewind his life to better days. And when he eventually does emerge, what will his family think?

The screenplay by director Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club) delves inside the psyche of Howard, who spends the entire film trying to justify his actions to himself through a darkly amusing inner monologue. He asks: “Who hasn’t had the impulse to just put their life on hold for a moment?”

As he sarcastically describes the events next door, moviegoers are left to decide whether he’s just being cruel or brutally honest. Perhaps it’s an act of defiance against middle-class conformity, as he rationalizes.

It would be easier to pity or despise such a character, but Cranston earns sympathy through a performance rich in depth and complexity. He’s forced to act by himself almost from beginning to end, which makes the challenge even more daunting.

Of course, Howard’s voyeurism becomes kind of creepy after a while, and we’re not given enough context to surmise his true motives outside of what we’re told. The structure becomes repetitive, and the overall impact isn’t as profound as it aspires to be.

Still, those willing to suspend their disbelief will find that through its ambiguity, Wakefield develops an intriguing what-if scenario regarding contemporary relationships. It might even be relatable, even if nobody would admit that.

 

Rated R, 106 minutes.