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EIFF 2017: Wakefield (2016)


Bryan Cranston plays Howard Wakefield, a New York lawyer whose train commute back to his suburban home is interrupted by a power outage. When he finally gets back, he decides to sleep in the roof space of the garage. The reason? He can’t face another day returning to his failing marriage to Diana. He opts to live there more permanently, sustaining himself with leftover food discarded in the neighbours’ trash cans. From the roof space’s window, he has an ideal vantage point to view his wife and children as they initially despair over him going missing, and then start moving on with their lives. In doing so, he begins to reassess his appreciation for his immediate family, but also relishes the burden of responsibility that has been lifted from his shoulders.

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Bryan Cranston is an incredibly talented actor who can tip the audience’s view of him between sympathy and revulsion, amusement and discomfort at the drop of a hat. While he wasn’t the only factor in what made Breaking Bad such a fantastic TV show, he certainly played a large part in it. Wakefield is a film that rests largely on his broad shoulders as it takes place heavily from his own character’s point of view, with most of the dialogue coming from his own internal monologue. It’s very much a variant on the Rear Window concept, with most shots of the other actors being seen from the huge circular window of the garage, with no audible dialogue bar Cranston himself putting (imagined) words in their mouths. However, instead of being the archetypal Hitchcockian thriller, it plays more like a blackly comic, existential character study.

Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t really successfully sustain itself, despite Cranston’s sterling work. I found it difficult to fathom that, throughout the film’s long timeframe, nobody ever thinks about searching the garage for the missing Howard. In real life, the police would surely contemplate the possibility that he (for example) committed suicide within its walls. It’s also hard to believe that this well-heeled man would seriously choose a life of eating from trash cans and excreting in a bucket near to where he eats and sleeps. While there are a couple of flashbacks to bedroom disagreements with his wife, they don’t really seem particularly bad in terms of real-life relationship ups and downs. It just seems very far-fetched.

Bryan Cranston looks out from his garage Rear Window-style

There’s also the issue that Howard’s point of view (the one heavily emphasised throughout) is incredibly mean and self-absorbed. There’s no reason to like this character who basically relishes watching his family’s life fall apart. He does redeem himself a little during the later stages of the film, but not enough to overcome this major flaw. The whole thing, once the concept has been fully established, really has nowhere to go. When the script throws in some aggressive Russian garbage thieves (who seem to have wandered in from one of those nightmarish 1980s comedies, such as After Hours or The Burbs) it seems like an desperate attempt to prevent the film from grinding to a complete halt.

Disclaimer: I went with a few friends, and some of them had an altogether more positive view of the film. Looking at Metacritic, the wildly varying review scores seem to indicate that Wakefield is something of a “marmite movie”. So, it’s entirely possible that you will enjoy it. Nonetheless, I still feel validated in my negative opinion.

Runtime: 106 mins

Dir: Robert Swicord

Script: Robert Swicord

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Beverley D’Angelo, Jason O’Mara, Ian Anthony Dale

Rating: ☆☆

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