TIFF 2016 – WAKEFIELD Review

Posted on Sep 16 2016 - 5:41pm by Jonathan Encarnacion

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Director: Robin Swicord

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner

Rating: 106 mins

Running Time: 14A

Bryan Cranston (BREAKING BAD) plays a typical white collar professional that’s tired of his typical routine.  So he abandons it – though strangely, without leaving it entirely.

Based on an E.L. Doctrow shirt story found in The New Yorker, WAKEFIELD places its title character in an optimal position to examine the rut of his life.  One peculiar night, instead of going through the doors of his house, Howard ends up in his garage attic and finds he can watch his family through the window.  So he stays there.  For a very long time.

Amazingly, as the seasons pass, this mad form of escapism doesn’t alienate us from Howard; instead, the quirky, narrative tour of his life makes him relatable in an emotionally beautiful way.

Much of this, of course, is owed to the performance of Bryan Cranston.  The set-up montage leading to his character’s opening narration is unexpected; but as his voice pulls us in from the ‘big picture’, Cranston sways our interest with his characterization.  And the narration carries us through the entire film with success.  Even at Wakefield’s most poetic moments, his build-up and delivery translates as the thoughts of an average man.

We’re treated to his brand of humor when he puts words in peers and family’s mouths – often funny, sometimes crass.  It serves as a lead-in to the kind of person Howard is: how he perceives his world, how it reflects on him.   We get to know more of his mind and mood in this subtle way, making the revelatory moments that much more satisfying by the third act.

Jennifer Garner (ALIAS, NINE LIVES) plays Howard’s wife, Diana.  We get to know in a more distanced manner – not just literally via present-tense voyeurism, but also in flashback.  Garner’s role has the challenge of potentially being ‘reactionary’ to the main character’s lead.  Instead, her characterization comes off as honest, sincere, and more than just subject to Howard’s interpretation, conveyed through body language rather than spoken lines.

Director Robin Swicord weaves this together with a flowing, comfortable sensibility.  As the scenes change, the progression of the film feels less pastiche and more ‘stream of thought’. Certainly fitting for the subject matter, and reflecting the source material impressively.  Equally impressive is the intro’s cinematography and music, giving a subtle nod to KOYAANISQATSI (another brilliant film) – giving a window to the filmmaker’s taste, and a perfect choice to incorporate in a story like WAKEFIELD.

Great character pieces are often marked with the afterthought of ‘it’d be difficult to picture this as good if played by someone else.’  This is certainly true of the marquee names associated with WAKEFIELD, with added applause for Cranston.  Had Cranston opted to play Luthor in BATMAN V SUPERMAN instead, we may have lost out on this incredible performance.

WAKEFIELD premiered at the Telluride Film Festival September 2, 2016, and will be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival September 17.

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