Wakefield begins with the vibe of a typical “middle-aged man in crisis” drama. Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) trudges home to the New York City suburbs on a commuter train, returning from some unsatisfying but well-paying lawyer job to his younger, beautiful wife Diana (Jennifer Garner), their two children, and their sumptuous home, which has a separate garage you could practically live in. Then, the power goes out on his train: an inexplicable if mundane event, Howard tells us in voiceover narration, considering there hadn’t been a storm and it wasn’t a sweltering summer day. And so Howard trudges home, only once he gets there, he doesn’t want to go inside.
That power failure functions as a sort of reset for Howard’s brain, and for the story of this muted, borderline-surreal take on suburban ennui. Based on the short story by E.L. Doctorow, and written and directed by Robin Swicord (a longtime Hollywood screenwriter whose only other directorial credit was The Jane Austen Book Club in 2007), Wakefield is a much odder film than it initially seems. Out in limited release on Friday, it’s a not entirely satisfying, but appreciably different movie that’s anchored largely by Cranston’s performance.
The simple premise: Rather than return home after another day at work, Howard moves into the unfurnished attic of his family garage and hides out, spying on his wife and seeing what her reaction is to his disappearance. The first half hour of Wakefield is undoubtedly mesmerizing, as you realize that there’s barely going to be any plot at all—just Howard quietly peering from the garage, obsessing over his peculiar stunt.
But then the film just keeps going and going (it feels fairly long at an hour and 45 minutes). Howard’s narration digresses into various flashbacks—explaining how he met his wife, the complicated love triangle he navigated to win her hand from his friend Dirk (Jason O’Mara), and the subsequent ossifying of their marriage. But none of this material is interesting, or deeply explored, enough to sustain the narrative on its own. Indeed, Howard comes off as a devious monster, though it’s unclear whether he totally understands that about himself.
Garner is handed perhaps the most difficult role of all: She’s shown mostly through binoculars walking around her house, seemingly wondering what happened to her husband. Swicord boldly never lets the audience inside the Wakefield home except in brief flashbacks, choosing not to fully explore the impact of the man’s decision. Howard just sits and waits for his wife to walk into the trap he believes he’s set, to make her forget about him and move on with her life. That, maybe, would confirm his own feelings of irrelevance, his obvious neuroses, even if his test is a completely unfair one.
It’s kind of baffling that Swicord was drawn to Doctorow’s short story, but there are hints of satire to Howard’s mental deterioration as his days in isolation stretch into months. Given his years on Breaking Bad, Cranston is a practiced hand at fleshing out the eccentric mind of the married man looking to shake himself out of his reverie. But he’s largely confined to voiceovers, puttering around the attic in an increasingly gross state as he sneaks out from time to time to eat his neighbors’ garbage.
My highest praise for Wakefield is that it isn’t the dull midlife crisis movie it initially presents itself as. But it also doesn’t do enough to lurch into more nightmarish territory, instead remaining in a middle ground where Howard goes about his new ghostlike routine with the same tedium as before. Rather than building to something more maniacal, Wakefield crests with an ending that’s disappointingly open-ended. If you want to see Cranston silently act against nobody for almost two hours and still hold the camera’s attention, then Wakefield is for you; but even for his devoted fans, that might be too much to ask.