Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a downtown New York litigator. He spends his days commuting from his home in the suburbs and spends his nights feeling like he’s invisible to his own family. Fifteen years and two daughters into his marriage to his wife (Jennifer Garner), the couple have entered that phase of domesticity where they are living separate lives and pass each other like ships in the night. One day as Howard returns from the city, he decides to leave his life and his family behind. Not in a “Dear John” letter kind of way. He hides in the attic over their detached garage and simply “disappears”.
Wakefield, the film from writer/director Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club, Memoirs of a Geisha) is told through heavy amounts of voice-over narration. This approach to story-telling vacillates between effective and irritating. The film-making maxim “Show Don’t Tell” is shattered by Wakefield and at times it stomps on the resulting shards. A great deal of the film is spent on medium and close shots of Cranston’s face as the voice-over tells us what he is thinking and feeling. A little of that technique can go a long way, and there are moments that Wakefield feels more like an audiobook than a film.
The themes woven through the narrative keep your attention. How many of us haven’t fantasized about simply disappearing for awhile, leaving our relationships and responsibilities behind, ignoring the conventions that society places on us and simply saying, “Enough”? And, initially, we sympathize with Howard Wakefield. We almost feel jealous of his freedom. But, if you spend just a few minutes thinking about the effect his disappearance is having on his wife and children, you no longer see Howard as a maverick or a silent protester. He’s either an uncaring, callous father and husband or he’s seriously mentally ill.
Wakefield hews closer to the belief that its protagonist is suffering a mental breakdown. That we, the audience, are getting a peak into a mind that is slowly losing touch with reality, as Howard morphs into a completely different person. It’s an intriguing concept, but Wakefield can be a bit too literal with its subtext. In one scene, Howard finds a hand mirror in the attic where he’s hiding. He gazes into the mirror and touches his grizzled beard and long hair with a bewildered look on his face. I was waiting for him to say, “What have I become?” It’s a bit too on-the-nose for a film that tries to explore the nuances of mental illness.
All this criticism is not to say that Wakefield is a terrible film. It has many touching moments (especially when Howard befriends some special needs children next door). It’s simply a matter of a very interesting premise being diluted by poor cinematic execution. If you’re headed to your local Landmark cinema this weekend, pass for now on Wakefield and see if I, Daniel Blake is still playing.
Wakefield opens at Landmark Theatre locations across the country on Friday, June 16, 2017.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.