Adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s short story (published in The New Yorker) that was in turn inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1835 story, the movie is literary to its core—it feels
like a short story—and largely unfolds inside Wakefield’s mind as he
observes, assesses and recollects; one narcissist’s heady interior
monologue from beginning to end.
A high-earning New York City litigator, Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is commuting home
to Westchester one night when a power outage forces him to walk a long
distance back to his house. He arrives late, exhausted and irritated,
his annoyance further fueled at the sight of a raccoon skulking around
the yard before darting into the carriage-house garage and up the stairs
into the attic space. Wakefield dashes after him. From the attic window
he observes his teenage daughters and his beautiful wife Diana
(Jennifer Garner) cleaning up the dinner dishes. Watching Diana reminds
him of an unpleasant squabble they had the previous night, bringing to
mind his souring 15-year marriage, often marred by his jealousy.
To avoid Diana, he decides to wait in the attic until she goes to
bed. But he falls asleep and when he wakes the next morning he’s sure
that Diana will not believe what happened and so he delays his return.
Time passes and he finds himself enjoying his role as a voyeur, studying
his wife’s irritation at his absence morphing into concern as the
police arrive along with his colleagues, friends and neighbors, all of
whom are trying to grapple with his unexplained disappearance.
In a spirit of experimentation, Wakefield decides to remain hidden in
the garage attic and as one night leads to the next, he survives by
foraging through the neighborhood garbage. Months go by—passing seasons
nicely telescoped with pumpkins, Christmas trees, etc.—and despite
momentary lapses the pleasure of spying on his family while he remains
invisible and thus in some ways omnipotent only escalates with time.
An arrogant man, Wakefield has great fun mocking and mimicking
everyone. His hitherto suppressed misanthropy runs rampant. In his
previous life he felt silenced and scrutinized. When his wife phoned he
grumbled about her surveillance of him, allowing her call to go to
voicemail. But the tables have now turned as he constantly peers in at
her, binoculars in hand.
With dirty, unkempt hair and long, blackened fingernails, he’s able
to wander around the streets unrecognizable to everyone. A local kid
views him as a beggar and hands him some loose change. His only human
contact is with a couple of severely challenged youngsters living in a
group home nearby. The more humiliated and isolated he becomes, the
freer he becomes.
Wakefield grows more in tune with the primitive natural world. Lying
on the floor in a heatless room, its roof riddled with holes allowing
icy snow to trickle down on him, he tries to stay warm beneath thin
blankets. In the warmer weather he’s assaulted by mosquitoes, and the
raccoon, which he previously swatted, is now his companion. It’s another
ironic twist of fate.
Wakefield is not a class-conscious movie, but it’s difficult
to ignore the opulent comfort in our protagonist’s community,
especially as the once wealthy and now impoverished Wakefield stares
into the large, gracious homes and more poignantly as he uncovers
perfectly good food that has been tossed into the garbage.
His turning point occurs when he suspects Diana may be seeing a
former rival who has now surfaced in the house more than once. Wakefield
liked thinking of Diana in a state of limbo, without the freedom to
cultivate a new romance that comes with widowhood or divorce. It’s a
detail, but she never removes her wedding ring, though neither does he.
Wakefield's defining flaw is his inability to grasp the experiences
of another human being separate from himself. If Diana is dating his
formal rival, Wakefield has been defeated. If she has cut down on
purchasing pricey items, her sacrifice reflects poorly on him as a
provider. At no point does he feel any compassion for his wife or guilt
at the anguish he has caused her as she wonders where he is and what
happened to him. Even more appalling—and credibility-defying—is his
apparent indifference to his young daughters.
In the Hawthorne story, set in 19th-century London and altogether
more mythic in tone, Wakefield has no children, which focuses the
narrative and makes so much more emotional sense. Similarly, Hawthorne’s Wakefield is an enigmatic figure, devoid of backstory, stated or
implied motivations. The distance of time and the lack of exposition
pack a stronger punch than the more literal and fleshed-out Doctorow
story, and by extension this film, whose adaptation is on-point.
That said, they are faithful to Hawthorne’s vision of Wakefield as
“remarkable a freak as may be found in the whole list of human
oddities,” even as the character is updated, Americanized and played by
one of the most relatable actors onscreen.
Despite the film’s cop-out ending, Wakefield is for the most part a riveting
character study that draws you in even as it turns you off.