Bryan Cranston shines in ‘Wakefield’



Have you ever fan­ta­sized about one day walk­ing away from your wellordered life? Just ditch­ing work and the hum­drum rou­tine of life? You have? Then, be­fore you go, you need to see the cu­ri­ously bril­liant film “Wakefield.”

Bryan Cranston stars as Howard Wakefield, a suc­cess­ful, up­per class sub­ur­ban­ite with a wife and kids who, on an oth­er­wise or­di­nary day, doesn’t come home from work. He ef­fec­tively drops out of life.

No, “Wakefield “isn’t a story about run­ning away. Our hero ac­tu­ally chooses to stay very close to his fam­ily — he hides in his home’s un­heated garage at­tic and scrounges for food in Dump­sters. He spends the next sev­eral months qui­etly spy­ing on the life he has re­moved him­self from.

“I ask you: What is so sacro­sanct about a mar­riage and a fam­ily that you should have to live in it day af­ter day, how­ever unrealized that life may be?” he asks. “Who hasn’t had the im­pulse to just put that life on hold for a mo­ment?”

“Wakefield” is di­rected by Robin Swicord from her adap­ta­tion of E.L. Doc­torow’s short story. Her film is a moody med­i­ta­tion on mod­ern liv­ing and surveil­lance, true to the orig­i­nal 10,000-word tale but also beau­ti­fully cin­e­matic.

It taps into a deep vein of Amer­i­can angst at so­cial con­form­ity, ex­plored be­fore by ev­ery­one from Henry David Thoreau to “Amer­i­can Beauty.” It ar­rives at a time when there’s a surge in in­ter­est in a more nat­u­ral life far from the crowds — so-called “cabin porn.” But the sub­ur­ban cabin Wakefield finds him­self leads to a bru­tal, un­ro­man­tic life.

For­ever peer­ing down into the main house’s win­dows, Wakefield must en­dure freez­ing New York win­ters and its blis­ter­ing sum­mer days. His hair and beard be­come un­kempt. He grows self-re­liant — em­brac­ing the an­ti­con­sumerism of “Fight Club” or “Into the Wild” — and be­comes, ba­si­cally, a her­mit.

“I no longer seem to re­quire those things that only days ago were so in­dis­pens­able,” he says. “Un­shack­led, I’ll be­come the Howard Wakefield I was meant to be.”

Cranston is sim­ply re­mark­able in the role, a tricky one since his char­ac­ter has pre­cious lit­tle di­a­logue with any­one else. Yet the ac­tor shows ev­ery­thing here — ar­ro­gance, sor­row, anger, love, fear. It may bring to mind an­other su­perb per­for­mance from a man who found him­self in ex­ile — Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.”

Wakefield’s wife is played with del­i­cate sad­ness by a ter­rific Jen­nifer Garner, who some­how is able to con­vey ranges of emo­tion mutely from be­hind a glass win­dow. Aaron Zig­man’s score has colours that are both play­ful and haunt­ing.

How Wakefield be­gins this new life is fright­en­ingly ac­ci­den­tal. Af­ter a fight with his wife, his train has me­chan­i­cal trou­ble one night and he comes home very late to find a rac­coon sniff­ing around. He chases the beast into the garage at­tic and de­cides to stay the night, un­will­ing to reawaken the spat with his wife. Soon enough, he has be­come a rac­coon him­self — sneak­ing around in the dark for food.

Cranston nar­rates what he as­sumes peo­ple are say­ing in his ab­sence, imag­ines the way var­i­ous en­coun­ters could go, flashes back to key do­mes­tic mo­ments and even en­joys watch­ing his loved ones strug­gle with tasks he used to com­plete. He be­friends two other out­casts — two chil­dren with men­tal chal­lenges. He comes to un­der­stand that he was not the nicest of men in his pre­vi­ous life.

“I never left my fam­ily. I left my­self,” he says.

The irony for Wakefield is that the longer he post­pones his re-en­try, the bet­ter he feels but the worse his in­evitable re­turn will be­come. The end­ing of the film — like the short story — may not an­swer all your ques­tions, but that’s not a rea­son to run away, is it?

“Wakefield,” a Mock­ing­bird Pic­tures pro­duc­tion, is rated R by the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica for “for some sex­ual ma­te­rial and lan­guage.” Run­ning time: 109 min­utes.

Three star out of four.

As­so­ci­ated Press photo

This im­age shows Jen­nifer Garner, left, and Bryan Cranston in a scene from “Wakefield.”

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