Movie Review: ‘WAKEFIELD’ gives Bryan Cranston a character study to shine in

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

WAKEFIELD
Rated R, 106 minutes.
Director: Robin Swicord
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Beverly D’AngeloJason O’Mara and Ian Anthony Dale

Character studies are often met with some trepidation. It can be something sprawling over various moods or takes place in one setting, but this type of film is meant to observe over traditional storytelling. While the story does start for the viewer, in the cinematic world, it is just an instance to the main character; conversely, the film’s run time does end, however it does not conclude. Furthermore, there aren’t supposed to be any pandering, or typical plot points.

This is important to note before seeing WAKEFIELD, the new film from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord (THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON). Starring Bryan Cranston as the titular character, it is quite the character study, as we narrow in on one man’s ego. Which is saying something, as the audience will learn that Howard Wakefield is not a good person.

Burdened by the monotony of suburbia, and the troubles of his marriage to Diana (Jennifer Garner), Howard decides to stay in his garage attic after trying to get rid of a raccoon. He ignores the calls from home, settling for a voyeuristic view of his family without him. He falls asleep for the night, accidentally, but because he doesn’t feel like confronting his wife or twin daughters, opts to accept this position as his new lot in life. He sheds himself of cell phone, wallet, and keys, vowing to not take another step into the house.

WAKEFIELD is mainly told in voiceover narration by Cranston, giving language to Howard’s thoughts during his excursion. Any external dialogue is either Howard talking to himself as he looks through the attic window, or the minimal contact with the outside world he has with strangers. Personal conversations take place in flashbacks to recall moments with Diana, and to soften the harsh viewpoint that the main character has in the film.

As previously mentioned, this is solely focusing on the extremes of one man’s ego. As the story progresses, there are glimpses into Howard’s obsession with control, most of which involve his relationship with Diana. Whether it be how their relationship began (Howard manipulated her other relationship) or the fact that he feigns jealousy to have post-argument sex, he longs to have the upper hand. This sense of control, or losing it, is made aware by this months-long introspection, which starts out with Howard’s admittance of his recent argument with Diana, and avoiding its resolution.

Bryan Cranston stars as Howard Wakefield. Courtesy of IFC Films.

Cranston is front-and-center the entire movie, and he shoulders the role with gravitas. In fact, his performance is so exceptional that it gives Howard this charm that you would more than likely find car salesmen: you know they’re just selling you something, but they say exactly what you need to hear to buy it. Adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s short story of the same name, Cranston is more than happy to chew scenery with some of Doctorow’s prose filling the air. His mocking of others to help the commentary he creates while sitting from his attic, as well as various eye movements and ticks, make for great depth.

Garner, who is mainly shown in response to Howard’s ramblings, carries a direct juxtaposition to his observance in facial expressions. He imagines her cold and insincere, while she shows concern that he won’t pick up the phone. It’s great shot selection by Swicord and DP Andrei Bowden Schwartz that help translate Howard to the audience, whether delusions or realizations, the lighting/editing help maintain the connective tissue to our observance. There might not be a true resolution or extensive character growth, but these small choices help paint the picture.

While the picture may paint the fragile state of Howard Wakefield, it never really goes fully into his psychology, which is the only downside of the film. Has he ever struggled with this sense of self, or is something he has been accustomed to in his existence? WAKEFIELD plays like an existential conflict of either being trapped in domesticity or trapped in solitude, but is it something that festered or is it an example of a mid-life crisis? Again, nothing to throw off the film, but could have driven the point home further as we continued this journey of self-reflection.

Freud once said, “The ego is not master in its own house.” While WAKEFIELD takes this literally, it still delves into the fragility this statement represents. It’s a contemplative piece of work, punctuated by great acting, and allows for the audience to think rather than just spoon-feed explanation. With much of our current views built on male ego, it’s important to have art that reflects such position.

Grade: B+

WAKEFIELD is now playing on iTunes, Vudu, and other VOD platforms.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.