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May 26, 2017

It’s not often that a literary work adapts so well to film. E.L. Doctorow’s short story, published in a January, 2008 issue of The New Yorker, shows the master of prose was still firing on all cylinders even as he approached his end. Robin Swicord’s adaptation, Wakefield, brings it perfectly to the screen, with all its dry irony intact beneath the absurd, madcap surface.

Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a successful, middle-aged.. well, it’s never really clear what he does. But it doesn’t matter. Some high-powered, white-collar job in the city, from which he takes the train back to his house in Connecticut. But one night, there’s a power outage. Howard is already feeling cynical about his job and his life and all the other people around him with their jobs and their lives, and by the time the train finally limps into his station it’s late and he’s buried deeper than ever in himself.

Rather than wait for a taxi, he simply walks to his house. But when he arrives, he doesn’t feel like going in to face his wife, Diana (Jennifer Garner), and children. Not yet, anyway. He notices a raccoon running into his detached garage, and follows it up to the storage space to flush it out. From there, he notices that a large window allows him to see across the driveway into the kitchen of his house, where his family are eating. He settles down into a chair to wait a little longer.

When he wakes in the morning, he realizes he’s been away all night, with no notice to his family. Diana must be getting worried, but he notices that he takes a certain perverse glee in the idea. When the police show up, he watches as they take her statement. He imagines how worried she must be, telling them her husband is missing while never knowing he’s so close. It’s like a soap opera, and he has a front-row seat. It’s not so bad up here, anyway; he can just hide a little while longer…

And so, unbeknownst to his wife, Howard Wakefield takes up a squatter’s residence in the storage space above his own detached garage. He steals food from her garbage, at first, but then moves on to other neighbors so she won’t grow suspicious. He must deal with the extremes of summer and winter, the space not being designed for comfortable habitation. And what happens when the kids want to retrieve something for their vacation trip?

Of course, all this time along leaves Howard plenty of time to think about his previous life. Which is not to say it leads him into some deeper, more nuanced understanding of his wife or their relationship. This story understands that a man like Howard, left to his own devices, will only find ways to retrench his own position, and justify himself ever more certainly. He can even convince himself that when he does at last decide to return, he may be welcomed with open arms.

Swicord manages to pull off the delicate balancing act that Doctorow set up: to allow us to live entirely within Howard’s viewpoint, and yet make it clear that he’s wrong. Or, at least, not entirely right. And a lot of that is due to Cranston’s performance. Howard could easily have veered into being simply a bully or a buffoon, without the recognition that he must be both at the same time. It allows us to sympathize with his plight, while trusting us to recognize that it’s all his own doing.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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