Have you ever fantasized about one day walking away from your well-ordered life? Just ditching work and the humdrum routine of life? You have? Then, before you go, you need to see the curiously brilliant film “Wakefield.”
Bryan Cranston stars as Howard Wakefield, a successful, upper class suburbanite with a wife and kids who, on an otherwise ordinary day, doesn’t come home from work. He effectively drops out of life.
No, “Wakefield ” isn’t a story about running away. Our hero actually chooses to stay very close to his family — he hides in his home’s unheated garage attic and scrounges for food in Dumpsters. He spends the next several months quietly spying on the life he has removed himself from.
“I ask you: What is so sacrosanct about a marriage and a family that you should have to live in it day after day, however unrealized that life may be?” he asks. “Who hasn’t had the impulse to just put that life on hold for a moment?”
“Wakefield” is directed by Robin Swicord from her adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s short story. Her film is a moody meditation on modern living and surveillance, true to the original 10,000-word tale but also beautifully cinematic.
It taps into a deep vein of American angst at social conformity, explored before by everyone from Henry David Thoreau to “American Beauty.” It arrives at a time when there’s a surge in interest in a more natural life far from the crowds — so-called “cabin porn.” But the suburban cabin Wakefield finds himself leads to a brutal, unromantic life.
Forever peering down into the main house’s windows, Wakefield must endure freezing New York winters and its blistering summer days. His hair and beard become unkempt. He grows self-reliant — embracing the anti-consumerism of “Fight Club” or “Into the Wild” — and becomes, basically, a hermit.
“I no longer seem to require those things that only days ago were so indispensable,” he says. “Unshackled, I’ll become the Howard Wakefield I was meant to be.”
Cranston is simply remarkable in the role, a tricky one since his character has precious little dialogue with anyone else. Yet the actor shows everything here — arrogance, sorrow, anger, love, fear. It may bring to mind another superb performance from a man who found himself in exile — Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.”
Wakefield’s wife is played with delicate sadness by a terrific Jennifer Garner, who somehow is able to convey ranges of emotion mutely from behind a glass window. Aaron Zigman’s score has colors that are both playful and haunting.
How Wakefield begins this new life is frighteningly accidental. After a fight with his wife, his train has mechanical trouble one night and he comes home very late to find a raccoon sniffing around. He chases the beast into the garage attic and decides to stay the night, unwilling to reawaken the spat with his wife. Soon enough, he has become a raccoon himself — sneaking around in the dark for food.
Cranston narrates what he assumes people are saying in his absence, imagines the way various encounters could go, flashes back to key domestic moments and even enjoys watching his loved ones struggle with tasks he used to complete. He befriends two other outcasts — two children with mental challenges. He comes to understand that he was not the nicest of men in his previous life.
“I never left my family. I left myself,” he says.
The irony for Wakefield is that the longer he postpones his re-entry, the better he feels but the worse his inevitable return will become. The ending of the film — like the short story — may not answer all your questions, but that’s not a reason to run away, is it?
“Wakefield,” a Mockingbird Pictures production, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for some sexual material and language.” Running time: 109 minutes. Three star out of four.
Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.