As humans, our desire to see ourselves as others see us seems to be deeply ingrained in our DNA, an impulse long explored by the cinema. In Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, an angel has to show George Bailey what the world would have been like if he’d never been born for the man to realize how deeply he’s impacted the lives of his friends and family. Robin Swicord’s Wakefield, on the other hand, is evidence that a compulsive need to see our lives from the outside looking in can lead us down a path of self-destruction.
Howard Wakefield’s (Bryan Cranston) witnessing of his family’s reaction to his sudden disappearance does just that, but this scenario doesn’t reveal much in the process aside from the hollowness of the upper-class comforts the man leaves behind and how dispensable he was to his wife, Diana (Jennifer Garner). Looking to avoid an argument with Diana, Howard hides in the abandoned attic above the family’s garage only to discover that he prefers to observe his former life from afar rather than actually live it.
For several years, Howard takes up residence in the attic where he secretly watches his wife and children through a large window with a full view of their home. He delights in Diana’s initial anger and confusion toward his absence, his friend and rival Dirk Morrison’s (Jason O’Mara) attempts to hit on Diana, and his mother-in-law Babs’s (Beverly D’Angelo) concern that he may eventually resurface and drain their bank accounts, but the reasons lying at the root of his inexhaustible vitriol don’t come close to explaining why he goes to such great lengths simply to watch his family suffer.
Writer-director Robin Swicord’s film seems content to merely carry out its absurdist premise until the bitter end.
Howard’s marriage, the details of which are only shown in flashbacks, appears rather standard in its dysfunctionality, so the audience is led to believe that Howard simply reached a point where he became fed up with it all: the suburbs, his job, his wife, his kids. What at first is meant as a brief reprieve from his supposedly intolerable life quickly becomes an addiction to the tormented joy of watching everything he left behind crumble and rebuilt itself.
Since most of Wakefield consists of Howard alone in the attic, Swicord leans heavily on voiceover, which is so overly reverent to the text of the 2008 E.L. Doctorow short story on which the film is based that there are several sequences where it seems like pages at a time are being read aloud as Howard’s internal monologues drag on ad infinitum. Cranston is able to breathe a modicum of life into an otherwise stale character by effectively selling the incessant anger and acerbic wit that masks Howard’s desperation, but is limited by his character’s conception as a purely intellectual conceit.
As it progresses, Wakefield reveals an inclination toward magical realism not unlike that of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which Swicord helped to adapt. But the more curious Howard’s circumstances become, the less vitality the harsh realities of his escapades away from home have. His voyeurism is reduced to a cruel irony as his continued contempt for his old life and Diana’s actions effectively extinguishes his humanity.
By the time Howard’s grown a scraggly beard and taken to shitting in a bucket, the film seems content to merely carry out its absurdist premise until the bitter end. With no one left to inflict it on, his selfishness turns delusional, becoming the instrument of his own downfall, while the self-aggrandizement that occurs only within his own mind leaves him outwardly devolving from a successful lawyer to a hobo. And yet, throughout all these years of reflection in exile, our access to his interior world is stifled by the perpetual veil of sarcasm and cruelty in which his words are steeped. He remains a cypher, but really, Howard isn’t a mystery worth solving. He’s just an asshole.