Ever wanted to switch off? Maybe press the pause button, put your life on hold, then disappear, if only for a moment? Howard Wakefield did. But for Howard, it wasn’t a moment, or even a few minutes. It wasn’t even days. He switched off, said nothing to the family, and disappeared for months.
In fact, his vanishing act went on for so long there was even a service in his memory. Yet, there he was, watching the whole thing. And it wasn’t that he was hiding in plain sight, not exactly, but if anyone had looked up and focused a little, there was always a chance they might have seen him. From the opening moments in the new drama Wakefield, Manhattan lawyer Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) has clearly had it with everything, and probably everyone.
It’s the end of another working day in the city and already it’s getting dark. The roads are packed bumper to bumper, headlights on, all running a slow gauntlet between the stacked, sky-high buildings, trying to get out of the city; the sidewalks are jammed with pedestrians getting in each other’s way as they hastily trot towards the nearest subway, or in Wakefield’s case, Grand Central Station. And it’s while on that train, heading out into the suburbs, back to his wife and children, when something happens.
The man is nearing the end of his journey when there’s a power cut. The train stops. The lights go out. Everywhere is in darkness, and after a long wait and no sign of a fix, Wakefield, along with everyone else, climbs off the train and wearily walks the rest of his journey home. “Can I be blamed for thinking things were a little strange that night?” he narrates.
It’s when he finally gets home that he notices a raccoon rummaging through the trash outside. The critter disappears into an opening in the side, detached garage, and Wakefield follows. That garage has a second floor, an attic. Wakefield climbs the stairs, shoos the raccoon away, then pauses. Peering through the small attic window he discovers he has a perfect view of both his front yard and of his house. He can see the kids eating dinner. He can see his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) looking concerned that her husband is late while she makes calls on her cell that remain unanswered. And all Wakefield does is passively watch. And he continues to watch. He’s finally pressed the pause button and put his life on hold, and for the next several months, while his hair and beard grow to crazy Howard Hughes proportions, he remains there, up in that attic, watching family life through the window from one season to another.
For most of the time, it’s only Wakefield’s voice that we hear. When he recalls a past event, there are certainly other voices. In a flashback, Garner’s Diana argues with her husband, telling him how she’s sick of a constant surveillance. “All I think about is just getting through the day,” she declares. But other than those brief moments, it’s Cranston’s Wakefield that does all the talking, making observances to himself, remarking on what he thinks might be happening. When friends and neighbors drop by to console Diana, Wakefield gives them voice, imagining what they’re probably saying, like someone who fills in the empty dialog balloons above strip-cartoon characters.
We never know what anyone is really saying, it all comes from Wakefield’s imagination, and there’s no way to know for certain whether he’s interpreting what he’s seeing as being the truth, but his words shape his thoughts – “They’re much happier without me” – and dictates how long he’ll remain in the attic. At one point he admits that he’s completely stranded himself, then later, when observing Diana looking happy at the dinner table, wearing her hair long again, and getting ready for dancing lessons, he states, “I love my wife now as I’ve never loved her before.”
Like that raccoon who was earlier rummaging through the trash, Wakefield emerges from the attic at night, going through the bins, foraging for food. Occasionally he might even find a decent pair of shoes. And during those arranged bulk-trash collection times, when unwanted over-sized articles are left discarded on the sidewalk and they’ve disappeared before dawn, Wakefield witnesses who those overnight neighborhood gremlins are, ominously roaming the suburbs, looking to fill the backs of their pickups with whatever others have left.
There’s no doubt, Cranston is terrific. It takes a certain kind of performer that’s able to hold your attention for almost two hours while doing little other than passing the time, reading copies of National Geographic in storage, peering through the attic window and making dismissive, low-key remarks, but Cranston does it, somehow making even the smallest of gestures appear important. After humming a tune while peering through a pair of binoculars, he pauses, considers something, then remarks, “You know, I never used to sing. That’s worth noting.”
But despite Cranston’s ability to keep you interested, almost two hours is a lot of time to invest in a concept that continually feels in danger of not concluding narratively well. How do you end a situation like this this without returning to normalcy? And what will the reactions of others be? In the end, the film let’s itself down.
The hibernating lawyer considers two situations; one where Diana and the kids are thrilled that after all this time, daddy has returned, then another when surprise turns to a look of horror. Both might work, but they’re the fantasies of his imagination; finally, after two hours, it’s the reality we want to see and hear. Wakefield will emerge from the attic, and he will return to the family – he has to; there’s no other way to end this – but there’s no sense of satisfaction in how it’s presented. Perhaps writer/director Robin Swicord intended audiences to discuss possibilities, but it doesn’t work. You’re looking for something definite, but after all this time you just feel cheated.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 109 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)