VOD film review: Wakefield
Hobo in an attic3
Nathanael Smith | On 01, Aug 2017
Director: Robin Swicord
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Beverly D’Angelo
Watch Wakefield online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
British viewers of Wakefield will immediately recognise that the lead character, Howard Wakefield, is a bad man when, in the opening credits, he skips a queue to buy some water. It turns out that this monstrous act is not even the worst thing about him.
Robin Swicord’s E.L. Doctorow adaptation, itself a spin on a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, follows Wakefield (overplayed by Bryan Cranston), as he shuts himself in the attic of his garage, disappearing from his life and watching the fallout from a circular window. His reasons for doing this are vague, but as the film unfolds from the confines of this dusty space, we learn more about Wakefield’s past; it emerges that he did this basically because he’s a massive jerk.
Defenders of the film will use the word “antihero”, but really, jerk is a more appropriate description. Protagonists are not required to be likeable, but the base requirement for the lead in a film is that they are interesting. Think back to Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler – a man with no arc and no redemption – for a great example of someone thoroughly hateful, but impossible to stop watching. He was an oily reflection of ourselves and our compulsion to be voyeuristic. Wakefield is also a voyeur, but without ever achieving that stomach-churning, attention-grabbing power of Bloom. He’s just horrible.
Trapped mostly a single location, Swicord resorts to a voiceover that permeates the entire film, letting us know Wakefield’s every thought. Most of those thoughts are about how his wife is a cow, how his wife doesn’t get him, how he likes to control his wife. These aren’t fascinating insights into a troubled man’s mind, they’re the jokes your middle-aged uncle makes during a speech at his third wedding. He even hates his mother-in-law. We’re invited to spend almost two hours inside the head of a man riddled with undiagnosed misogyny and nothing close to an original thought. Cranston’s gurning, nervy performance, which comes across like Robin Williams on an off-day, doesn’t make it any better.
Admittedly, Wakefield being a terrible person is the raison d’etre of the whole film. It gets to the point where Howard has fully embraced the life of a bin-rustling, grubby-clothed vagrant and Swicord has fun juxtaposing Wakefield’s narration, which strains at being erudite and insightful, with the reality of his startling situation. Here, she comes closest to making some kind of salient point about how men can reduce themselves to such a repulsive state for the sake of being “right”. The audience knows he’s in the wrong, but even as he forages through bins, he still commentates on the world, as if he’s an authority on the inner workings of humans.
Such moments of insight are sadly few and far between. The rest of the time is an onslaught of misanthropy that becomes wearying. Emerging through it all with some dignity is Jennifer Garner, playing the beleaguered wife that Wakefield so hates. It’s unfortunate that she gets such short shrift, reduced to being watched and silent through a window. We’re deprived of any other perspective beyond Howard’s own warped worldview, and, ultimately, that just isn’t interesting enough.
Wakefield is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.