“Who hasn’t had the impulse to just put their life on hold for a moment?”
There’s a great line of self-realization around mid-way through Robin Swicord‘s Wakefield where Howard (Bryan Cranston) acknowledges how he didn’t leave his family—he left himself. It’s this brilliantly profound yet simple understanding, something we all must face head-on once our daily routines prove too predictable and boring to bear. But where most people’s mid-life crises result in affairs or new cars to implode their seemingly utopic lives as a blunt-force wake-up call, Howard’s arrives in the form of a crippling nervous breakdown. The turmoil we would work out in healthy and unhealthy ways outside takes over his mind, trapping him in a looped stasis. He seeks to reset his very identity and in doing so risks losing everything good about the old one along with the bad.
Based on a short story of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, the film becomes a literal manifestation of those anxious and uncertain moments playing out inside our head with voices not far removed from our own that we must combat in order to not completely shutdown. Through narration we hear the paranoia of an unhinged mind at his breaking point, his memories relaying how competitive and vindictive he has always been. It’s this cruelty masked as “fun” that used to get him through the mundane repetition of New York City highlife and it started slipping away once the isolation of idyllic suburban idealism was introduced. His professional success and achievement of socially normative goals with it brought him a calm that inevitably tightened an invisible noose.
Marriage rendered the danger and chase non-existent—success a letdown compared with the electricity acquiring it. The birth of children supplied the type of love that could distract from this setback, the responsibility of lives being in his hands a danger in and of itself. But now he’s fifteen years in and going through the motions. He’s rendered his wife (Jennifer Garner‘s Diana) into a possession and his twins (Ellery Sprayberry and Victoria Bruno) albatrosses he’s too lazy to try re-igniting a relationship with in order to break through their generic teenage apathy. So he picks fights to spice up his sex life, his jealousy a game turned reality threatening to push Diana away. He transforms himself into a victim that only he is charitable enough to pity.
This is where we meet Howard: at a crossroads of martyrdom and self-loathing. The wounds of a quarrel he initiated have him ignoring phone calls from his wife as he walks home from the train during an unlikely power outage. A raccoon skulking around his yard leads him to the attic of their garage, the view into their house’s large dining room window providing him pause to voyeuristically see how everyone reacts to his absence. It’s easy to snidely and privately cut them all down, building himself up as a superior being while laughing when their worry so soon enlists outside help from police. He dreams up scenarios in his mind, motivations for every visitor after as though he is their puppeteer. This power without consequence consumes him.
Suddenly he cannot escape this locale. To re-enter their lives would mean an explanation he doesn’t quite have. And if he did, who’s to say they won’t reject his return and go about their happier lives without him? Howard begins to over-analyze as much as trivialize everything occurring, connecting current events and emotions to those from the past that he doesn’t entirely regret. We learn where this yearning to be master of all things comes from. We understand the burden he placed upon himself without ever letting anyone close enough to help shoulder its weight. We watch as humility gradually arrives with each passing week and month, the fact that his family begins moving on a product of their strength rather than a declaration of his insignificance.
It feels like a one-man play at times because it’s all from one character’s perspective. We rarely even hear his wife or children’s voices outside of flashbacks, their interactions silently viewed from the safety of his ivory tower turned jail. Doctorow provides his allegory as existential paradox much like Franz Kafka‘s “The Metamorphosis” and Swicord adapts and films it in way that recalls the best of Neil LaBute‘s oeuvre. Howard simultaneously unravels and finds clarity, his tragic circumstances supplying fresh insight he wouldn’t have otherwise received. His latent relationship-sabotaging aggression is unleashed as feral rage while gleaning garbage scraps amongst the homeless. His desire for solitude away from mankind’s pettiness provides him a clean slate to acknowledge the importance human connection possesses when it inevitably presents itself again.
Wakefield is about our desire to expose the atrocities around us without admitting those we commit. It’s about finding yourself on the outside looking in to put the pieces together and see your compassion as an egotistically self-serving lie. Because for every instance of It’s a Wonderful Life optimism comes the opposite. Being integral to the lives surrounding us doesn’t mean our impact is always positive. While Howard gave Diana love, security, and family, he eventually remembers how he also consciously stole a piece of her free will along the way. While he helps provide his daughters a home and comfort so they may safely grow into adults and do the same, his own childish yearning for affirmation also pushes them away—his resentment becoming visible to all.
What’s truly important? What sustains and what makes us greedy? What will we fight tooth and nail for when the opportunity presents itself? These are the kind of grand, unanswerable, and infinitely interpretable questions that arise out of Swicord’s film. Maybe we’re watching a man’s slow journey towards clarity progressing over many months or perhaps it’s a metaphor of what that journey feels like inside as the world grows loud and our ability to silence it wanes. With humor (Cranston is a delight when creating his own conversations above those he cannot hear) and drama (as cozy as Howard’s escape is, the threat of psychological and physical harm is real), the scenario is a heightened yet familiarly resonate one. Our most serious troubles almost always stem from within.
 Bryan Cranston as Howard Wakefield in Robin Swicord’s WAKEFIELD. Photo by Gilles Mingasson. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
 Bryan Cranston as Howard Wakefield and Jennifer Garner as Diana Wakefield in Robin Swicord’s WAKEFIELD. Photo by Gilles Mingasson. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
 Jennifer Garner as Diana Wakefield in Robin Swicord’s WAKEFIELD. Photo by Gilles Mingasson. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.