★★ / ★★★★
The curious drama “Wakefield,” based on the short story by E. L. Doctorow, tells the story of a man (Bryan Cranston) who one day decides to check out from the world without any warning, not even to his wife (Jennifer Garner) and two children. Possessing a fascinating premise, ripe for an intense character study, it is most unfortunate that the material neither ever truly takes off nor does it offer deep insights when it comes to everybody’s need, and perhaps longing, to take a break from life. Instead, we listen to Howard bemoan about the life he left for nearly two hours. Did he expect others, even those people who he claims to have, never to move on with life during his absence?
While I admired that the story is about an unlikable person, some may claim detestable, I think he is only interesting on the surface. Cranston does a commendable job in delivering precise facial expressions and subtle body languages meant to communicate great discontent within an otherwise wonderful life. When the camera focuses on that aging, expressive face and simply allows the viewers to extract meaning from the way he looks, the way he sits, and the way he observes from a dirty window, the picture is most engaging.
However, narration is prevalent in this chamber piece. It is used as a crutch to explain when the material’s inherent strength is to show. Words lie, especially given an untrustworthy narrator who is so into himself, but behavior leaves less room for dishonesty. Notice that humor, most often situational, is a welcome addition because it breaks Howard’s monotone and boring thoughts. Conflicts or potential conflicts that arise from situations tend to show rather than tell. I believe the decision to add voiceover is a way to satisfy mainstream audiences. Because it is afraid to be silent, to rely on images, it does a disservice to the nature of the film.
Flashbacks are employed in a smart way. They, too, show rather than tell. While narration is used during flashbacks, the images are powerful enough, and occasionally quite moving, to ignore the words being hammered into our ears. These quick visitations to the past are informative—many of them directly tethered to our further understanding of Howard and why he allowed himself to treat his family the way he did. Initially, we are led to believe his motivation is to punish his wife for a quarrel earlier in the day. It is much deeper than that. For instance, the material touches upon the competitive drive of being “a man,” a twisted, toxic interpretation of masculinity. Note how Howard consistently underlines his role as a provider when, in reality, his wife, too, works in order to pay the bills.
Adapted to the screen and directed by Robin Swicord, “Wakefield” is tolerable because it does not provide the audience easy answers. In fact, it is like sorting through mud with hopes that there are minuscule nuggets of gold hidden among the grime. On this level, I thought it was curious. On the other hand, it absolutely makes compromises in order to have some sort of commercial appeal—strange because I cannot imagine mainstream viewers would be drawn to this type of material or story in the first place. Hence, why not just go all the way and risk it all in order to create work that functions at its fullest potential?