The exaggerated and partly interesting central crisis in Robin Swicord’s Wakefield (2016) originates from two contrasting elements: privileged social position and strained familial relationship. Howard Wakefield lives in a posh suburban neighborhood, occupies the top position in a firm, blessed with a beautiful wife and two daughters. Viewed from the outside, it’s a life of ethereal beauty. Most importantly Mr. Howard possesses the luxury of thinking. But one has to wonder if thinking or the perception of one’s own self would always lead to soothing personal evolution. Our mind wanders hungers or yearns for something new, even though we are grateful for what we have. The suburban life despite its opulence remains airtight and eventually fails to quench the inherent existential hunger. Nothing we achieve or buy can guarantee to fill our inner void. This inward frustration or existential angst propels us to see the banality within life’s alleged beauty or see the precarious nature of the alleged precious things. Such realization has the power enough to make us go insane. Yet the inner power to confront existential angst can possibly freshen up our airtight atmosphere. Wakefield is the story about a narcissistic upper middle-class middle-aged male confronting the nothingness of urban life. He decides to ‘put his life on hold for a moment’ and see what he has left through the binoculars from a dark attic.
Wakefield is based on E.L. Doctorow’s 2008 short story (published in New Yorker) which was actually inspired (modern update) by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 short story of the same name. The entire story unfurls from the perspective of the protagonist – an obnoxious self-centered man who observes and reassesses the people around him from his self-imprisoned space. Enchantingly performed by Bryan Cranston, Howard Wakefield, one usual week-day leaves his Manhattan law firm, takes the train, and due to odd power outage arrives at home late and exhausted. He stands outside his home, annoyed by the calls from wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and at the sight of a racoon loitering around the yard, before running up the attic of carrier-house garage. Wakefield chases off the racoon resting at the attic, watches his wife and two teenage daughters from the attic window. Diana remains tense (may be about her husband not returning the calls or due to the fight they had) and Wakefield decides to stay there for few minutes until things cool off. Alas, he sleeps the night there and wonders if Diana would believe his story (wouldn’t she think of him having an affair?). So he decides to delay his return until she goes off to her job.
As time passes, Wakefield enjoys being a voyeur and narrates few details of the unpleasant squabble they have these days. Wakefield acknowledges that his jealousy is affecting their 15 year old marriage. Yet, he kind of blames Diana for looking beautiful or being (sexually) suggestive when talking with other men. Diana is clearly irritated by her husband’s absence and calls the police, doubting whether he has left her after harvesting all the money from the accounts. But the checks remain intact and car is inside the garage. The unexplainable disappearance of Wakefield raises genuine concern within Diana. For some odd reasons, Wakefield decides to continue his experimentation: to remain hidden in the garage attic. He forages through neighborhood’s garbage bin for food, making the odd malevolent or funny remarks about his strained relationship with Diana; and about the other stoic family members or colleagues.
Before long, his hair and beard grows long. At one point, he walks around the town like a homeless guy without fear of being recognized. Throughout it all, Wakefield spies on his wife, every male member entering their abode is a potential nemesis to make him a cuckold. Subsequently, he narrates how he won over (or conquered) Diana from his friend Dirk Morrison. Months pass by and the endless humiliation and loneliness seem to free him from his envious 'self'. He contemplates how his cynicism towards the familial life inflict sense of entrapment that's entirely his own making. Nevertheless he seems to have gone too far and remains in sync with wild natural world. Can he return back to the ‘normal’ life? Most importantly, will this absurd experiment bring unbridled compassion for his wife and daughters? Has he become wise or lost his self to madness?
The unpardonable problem with the film lies in the conception of its protagonist. He is a man with zero ability to grasp others’ human experiences. He neither showcases iota of empathy towards his wife nor feels guilt about his prolonged experiment. What’s more shocking is Wakefield’s unbelievable level of indifference towards the young daughters. Director Swicord’s visual flair is commendable as much as her emotional grasp of the material is irritable. She definitely provides some food for thought but from emotional perspective, the narrative is muddled or terribly hollow. We never understand Wakefield’s conflicting emotions or the man’s complex feelings. He is simply embroiled inside his toxic masculinity and never comes out of it even after the frequent bouts of revelatory episodes. Does Swicord’s movie intend to address this deep-seated aspect of toxic masculinity? If it is, the director/writer has done bungled job at it. There are strains of Wakefield’s existential angst which I can definitely relate to, but overall he comes across as a manipulative egocentric guy not worth the shot at redemption. The guy’s prism of self-loathing doesn’t allow room for any humane feelings. As the final punchline of critic Derek Smith’s review (in Slant magazine) says, “Howard isn’t a mystery worth solving. He’s just an asshole”. Still, there are two things I loved in the film: Swicord’s graceful handling of the brief friendship between mentally challenged youngsters (from neighbor’s house) and Howard; and then the brilliant performances. Bryan Cranston definitely steers the unsatisfying character study into watchable territory. Jennifer Garner imbues her under-written character with grace and honesty (if only she was given little more leeway!).