Any person who has truly lived their life can attest to how frustrating the monotony most of us find ourselves in. Like the music you find on the radio, the constant repetition keeps us marching to the doldrum beat of a drum with little day to day variations. Sometimes you just wish you could disappear and escape from this depressing cycle, but our rational mind steers us away from that cliff and just chalks it up to a simple case of the Mondays. Wakefield examines what would happen if we removed ourselves from the monotonous mechanism of life and instead became just a casual observer of it.
Robin Swicord directs and adapts this film with surprising faithfulness to the short story it is based on. Swicord is no stranger creating or adapting unconventional tales. In fact, she’s built a career on it with films ranging from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button all the way to Matilda. She is able to channel the magic of these stories into enthralling adventures, which works to her favor in the odd Wakefield. Wakefield discovers a discordant note and holds it (and us) for much longer than it has any right to. It grips us with melancholic musings and a comprehensive psychological tour through the mind of a man facing much more than a midlife crisis.
The story follows Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) as he faces a moment in his life that he can’t come back from. His relationship with his wife (played by Jennifer Garner) is built on a toxic psychosexual struggle for power that manifests in exhibitionist, voyeuristic and cuckold fantasies. After another day of monotony at work, he returns home to find the lights are out in his city, with the light being an obvious metaphor for motivation to continue living his life in the same predictable way. Instead of returning home, he decides to camp out above the garage and see the reaction his family has to his “disappearance.” In what can best be described as a practical joke gone wrong, his stubbornness fuels his commitment to remaining “missing” but as time passes he comes to terms with the fact that he might not be missed at all.
The entire film is explored through the thoughts and musings of Howard. Swicord decides to have the film narrated through the point of view of Howard, which skews the film more to the literary than the cinematic but is ultimately an effective sacrifice that lets the audience truly explore the character. Howard is an unreliable narrator and an altogether unlikable character at the start, but as he slowly starts to break down both physically and mentally, we discover the motivations of a man fueled by insecurity and self-sabotage. Swicord does this in a subtle way, leaving the audience to mostly examine the character study that becomes Howard Wakefield solely based on his actions, interactions, observations and interpretation of all the above. True to life, with all the information we are given through Wakefield’s experience, we figure out the problems and many escalations in his life that have lead to his current predicament.
The story may be a nontraditional one, but it is set in the real world where the most supernatural element is the complexity of humans. The visual aesthetic reflects that fact by providing beautiful natural imagery to match the emotional subtext of the scene. The warmer tones highlight memories and moments of genuine human interaction, while the cooler hues emphasize the feeling of loneliness and self-imposed isolation. The film’s pacing is meant to mirror the character’s existential journey, but at times the lethargic contemplation ways heavier on our patience than our minds. It is a necessary evil for the character development, but not an easy one to look past.
The film has a modest cast and an even more modest approach, which means that the few characters involved need to keep the audience continually engaged for this film to even have a hope of working. Because the film is from the point of view of Howard, Wakefield’s failure or success is directly tied to Bryan Cranston’s performance. Cranston delivers a minimalist performance that not only keeps our attention but earns it. His natural charisma and emotional range not only bring Howard Wakefield to life but also awaken what could easily have turned into a slumberous cinematic experience. While this film is close to a one-man show, the moments Cranston interacts with co-star Jennifer Garner show their electric chemistry as they sell the authenticity of their intimacy. Despite constantly being typecast in these maternal roles, Garner reminds us just how much she can deliver in a smaller role.