The literary ghost, if not the macabre spirit, of Edgar Allan Poe haunts “Wakefield,” a movie notable for its use of a self-justifying, first-person narrator/nut job of the sort Poe famously featured in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat” and so many other of his tales of the bizarre.
In this case, the wackadoodle protagonist is Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston), a Manhattan lawyer who arrives at his comfortable suburban home late one spring evening, only to follow a raccoon into the attic of his detached garage – and then, for the remainder of the film, to never leave it.
OK, technically he does venture out every so often: initially to raid the refrigerator when his wife, Diana (Jennifer Garner), has left the house and later to secretly scavenge food and other necessities from local trash cans. But for the most part, Howard hides, in not-quite-plain sight, spying by binoculars through a small window on Diana and their twin teenage daughters (Victoria Bruno and Ellery Sprayberry), who eventually come to conclude, understandably, that Daddy has disappeared for good, or died.
Why does he do it?
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Howard and Diana had, like so many couples, recently quarreled. “Why go in there now,” Howard muses, in voice-over, on the first night of his self-imposed exile, “just to endure another predictable scene with my wife?” Like many a Poe narrator, he tries – with a surprising amount of success – to make his successive actions plausible, even if he fails in the effort to convince us that he’s completely sane.
“Who hasn’t had the impulse to just put their life on hold for a moment?” Howard asks rhetorically, once he has decided to stay put. (He also stops going to the office, shaving and cutting his hair.)
But to act on such a fantasy, and for a year? Written and directed by Robin Swicord (“The Jane Austen Book Club”), “Wakefield” feels more like a strange thought experiment than something that a reasonable person might actually do. Swicord is concerned with the minutiae of survival: How does Howard avoid detection? Stay warm in the winter? Relieve his bladder? But she’s also interested in deeper philosophical questions about the nature of love and identity. “I never left my family,” Howard tells us, not entirely persuasively, late in the film. “I left myself.”
It is only through this metaphorical out-of-body experience that Howard is able to see – and really appreciate – his own life, “Wakefield” argues. That’s an interesting proposition, but not necessarily a profound one. And a subplot involving Howard’s relationship with two neighbors with Down syndrome who accidentally discover his lair (Pippa Bennett-Warner and Isaac Leyva) doesn’t really go anywhere, although it seems calculated to serve as a metaphor for not over-intellectualizing the simple joys of life (or something). The straightforward plot is also supplemented by flashbacks showing how Howard first met Diana, by stealing her away from his friend (Jason O’Mara).
Cranston is consistently watchable in the title role, although Howard’s journey into – and, at least potentially, out of – madness is a tough one to keep up with.
“I’ve stranded myself,” Howard laments, as the film nears its open-ended climax. So, too, does “Wakefield,” unfortunately. Like Howard himself, Swicord’s screenplay paints itself into a corner from which it doesn’t really seem to want to escape.
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner
Director: Robin Swicord
Length: 109 minutes
Rating: R (coarse language, sensuality and brief nudity)
Chapel Hill: Chelsea.