Film Review: Wakefield (USA, 2016) is a dull character study about a mad man

Wakefield is a long, drawn-out rendering of a short story. It shows one man’s descent into madness and how he becomes a voyeur of his own family. The film is a dramatic one and while the central idea seems original enough, it’s something that was better in the written format than in a full-length, feature film.

This drama is written and directed by Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club.) It is based on a fictional story that was written by E.L. Doctorow, which in turn was based on an original piece by Nathaniel Hawthorne. As a literary story it is one that certainly has its merits, but it is far too dull and introspective for the silver screen because it is based on the interior world and monologues of its lead character.

Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) stars as Howard Wakefield, a successful lawyer living in New York. He has a beautiful wife, Diana (Jennifer Garner who is also a former dancer here) and two teenage daughters. Wakefield comes to resent and tire of the hum-drum tedium and cycle of work and domesticity. He has been married for 15 years and he is sick of things being the same, so one day he decides to simply check-out.

Instead of returning home from work like any normal person Wakefield decides to take up residence in the attic and pretend that he has disappeared. From this vantage point, he watches his wife’s initial despair and worry over her husband’s disappearance. These emotions change over time to grief and eventual acceptance and Garner does a fine job of conveying all of these different emotions despite having very little dialogue to work with. Most of the film is told from Wakefield’s perspective using a bunch of voiceovers.

Wakefield’s mental state quickly deteriorates over time. He survives by scavenging for food and defecating in a bag. He enjoys watching his family from afar and he seems to gain pleasure and bemusement from this situation that he’s constructed. Most viewers will find themselves sitting back and wondering why he doesn’t just man up, stop this stupid prank and go home.

Wakefield makes for a dark and strange character study that is unlike anything you could actually imagine happening in real life. Along the way, Wakefield reminisces about his marriage and tells his version through a series of flashbacks. Theses events don’t add much to the overall piece because they too are quite uneventful and dull.

Wakefield could have made for an interesting meditation on resentments and wanting to take a holiday from reality. Instead, it’s a long and drawn out study that feels completely inexplicable and ludicrous. Fans of Bryan Cranston’s may enjoy this enigmatic character and the diary of a madman that ensues, but the overwhelming majority would probably find Walter White a far more interesting and plausible human being.

Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Wakefield is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD