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There's a whiff of John Cheever-ish unease in Wakefield, a quietly unsettling drama about a man who disappears from his suburban home, only to spy on his family's response from a house across the street. In fact, the movie is based on a 2008 New Yorker short story by E.L. Doctorow, which in turn was inspired by a Nathaniel Hawthorne tale with the same premise, written in 1837.
That is a big chunk of male gaze down the years, but here comes a woman, writer-director Robin Swicord, who both respects the material and neatly corrals it for her own purposes. She gets splendidly creepy help from Bryan Cranston, an actor of great versatility whose rictus grin and beady-eyed glare predict he may never outrun typecasting. Cranston plays Howard Wakefield, a well-heeled, cranky Manhattan litigator who, at the end of an evening commute home, hurls his briefcase at a foraging raccoon on his quiet suburban street. Pursuing the animal into the cluttered attic of an abandoned (foreclosed, presumably — the setting is contemporary) house opposite his own, he discovers that he can spy on his wife, Diana (Jennifer Garner), and their teenaged twin daughters from an upstairs window.
Howard settles in for some rear-window espionage, and what began as a moment of perverse whimsy soon devolves into what may be a permanent absence from a marriage that Howard — who guides us through his family history in jaundiced voiceover — believes has grown dull and hostile through long familiarity and sexual boredom. Fifteen years earlier, we learn from copious flashbacks, Howard had seduced Diana, an intelligent, honest former dancer, away from a gullible junior colleague. Snickering, he watches his wife grow distraught as his absence lengthens into weeks and then months, calling in help from friends and colleagues whom Howard despises.
Wakefield is Swicord's second tour as director, and a much stronger work than her pleasant, market-driven The Jane Austen Book Club back in 2007. A longtime screenwriter, she has turned Doctorow's tale into a pleasingly old-school noir sprinkled with bleak black comedy. Cranston is queasy fun to watch as, increasingly undone in straggly, unwashed hair, Howard does his own raccoon-style foraging in trashcans, armed with something that looks like a squash racket. Soon, his facetious glee curdles into a mounting unease that comes with watching the life he thought he had left move on without him.
It quickly grows clear that the cunning operator is also a spectacularly unreliable narrator who's overdue for a major correction. Swicord's adaptation is tactful and elegant, but in trying to explore what might drive a man like Howard Wakefield — about which Doctorow is properly reticent — she draws connections that are more than a touch glib. Broad hints are dropped that Howard's Darwinian lust for mastery, his misogyny (Beverly D'Angelo holds up nicely as Diana's busily supportive friend), his paranoid take on human relations, are a product of late-capitalist corporate culture. Suburbia becomes, yet again, the locus for a discussion of how quickly the thin veneer of civilization breaks down under duress, or cracks to reveal the animal within. All true perhaps, yet the argument fails to answer to all the suburbanites who live decent, honorable lives without putting their families through the mill of their own escape fantasies.
Toward the end of Wakefield we see Howard moving toward his own front door, running his head through alternate scenes of delight and rejection from his loved ones. Has his self-inflicted ordeal made him a new man, the kind of man who willingly shares space with raccoons and exchanges playful kindness with the disabled children next door? Or was this just a weird interlude from which he's learned nothing and remains the same old animal? For the answer to that and his fate, happily, the filmmaker keeps perfect faith with the author.