Ambition in film doesn't get enough credit these days – maybe because it's so rare. But the daring of writer-director Robin Swicord is all over Wakefield. Based on a 2008 short story by E.L. Doctorow (and before that, an 1835 tale from none other than Nathaniel Hawthorne), the film gets whisper-close to Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston), a New York lawyer who turns his life upside down. He's so fed up with the Groundhog Day-ish sameness of his routine – working in his Manhattan office, commuting home to his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and their twin daughters in the suburbs – that he decides to make a change. Revenge? Divorce? Suicide? None of the above. Wakefield takes refuge in the garage attic directly across the street from his house and hides there, observing life going on without him for nearly a year. His family, meanwhile, wonders if he's dead. And then they move on.
In the hands of the wrong filmmaker or the wrong actor, this could be the story of a selfish creep who tries our patience and defies understanding. Thanks to Swicord and Cranston, however, Wakefield has found a shelter where its ideas can breathe and resonate. The challenges are many. As our hero hides in that attic, letting his hair grow out, his hygiene dissipate and his mind wander close to the edge, the film is sometimes suffocated by its rigid point of view. To capture the story’s stream of consciousness, Cranston talks us through what’s happening in monologues and narration. Using binoculars to spy on his family, he imitates their voices in an approximation of what they are saying. Since he can't really hear them, his running commentary reflects his own biting humor and bitter cynicism about a world that's failed him. Swicord uses flashbacks to fill in scenes from this marriage, but as Wakefield puts his life on pause, it's his head we're trapped in. As it should be.
Hawthorne used the tale to show how family values, as set by society, could smother individual freedom. Doctorow's contemporary take on the material is less dogmatic but equally harsh. By stripping away the things that define him in so-called civilization, Wakefield is left to his own devices. His actions range from practical (stealing food from dumpsters) to petty (imaging how soon his wife will starting hooking up with other men) to self-pitying (had his family basically forgotten him even before he left?). Garner is terrific at giving layers to a character who is basically seen behind glass and denied the chance to state her own case. But Swicord, who helped shape the adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is forced by the source material to say focused on his ennui-driven protagonist.
The role is a beast, and Cranston, in a tour de force of touching gravity and aching humanism, gives it everything he's got. It's astounding to watch, and an award-caliber performance from an actor who keeps springing surprises. A few critics have complained that the ending – right out of Doctorow and Hawthorne – is a cop-out. I find it an open-ended challenge to go home and hash it out with someone you spend your life with. Get ready for sparks to fly.