Wakefield (film)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Wakefield is a 2016 American drama film directed and written by Robin Swicord, based on the short story of same name by E. L. Doctorow. (Doctorow's story, in turn, was based very loosely on an 1835 story of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne.) The film stars Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner.



Howard Wakefield (Cranston) seems to have it all with a successful job, beautiful family and house in the suburbs, until one day he simply vanishes. Unbeknownst to his wife (Garner), he is still there but is hiding in the attic above their separate garage. From his hiding place, he secretly studies the lives of his wife, his twin daughters and their neighbors, but discovers more about himself.


The story is told from the point of view of Howard Wakefield, through narration that reveals his evolving emotional state. A successful attorney in New York City, he is unhappy in his marriage of 15 years to Diana, a beautiful art curator and former dancer. They used to use flirtation with other people to add excitement to their sex life, but she is sick of this and she resents what she calls his constant jealousy. One night, he returns home from his commute by train, late, and is distracted by a raccoon he sees going into the family garage, which is detached from the house. He chases the raccoon into the garage's attic, where he realizes he has a perfect view into his home, where his wife and two daughters, Taylor and Giselle, are eating dinner. He ignores calls from his wife and is amused at her clear annoyance, but is insulted when she angrily throws his plate of dinner away instead of saving it for him. To avoid a fight, he decides to wait a bit to go into the house, but he instead falls asleep on a chair in the attic.

The next morning, Howard realizes Diana will never believe his story of spending the night in the garage and will insist he was having an affair, so he plans to wait for her to leave for work before going in. Instead, he is shocked when, after finding his car still in the garage, she calls the police to report him missing. Howard feels bad when he sees Diana start crying after the cops leave, but before he can go inside, his overbearing mother-in-law, Babs, shows up to comfort her daughter. Babs appears to be saying that Howard has run off while Diana apparently defends him, showing her there is no evidence he has taken any money. Diana then leaves for work and Howard finally goes inside and showers, planning to just deal with the fall out of his being gone, before he starts resenting the idea that his wife would still go to work after his disappearance. It then dawns on him that his disappearance is probably a relief to her, and that she is most likely thinking she married the wrong man. He decides to go back to his hiding spot in the garage attic, cleaning up any evidence that he was there before loading up on food from the pantry.

Howard is overjoyed with abandoning all his responsibilities and amused that people will surely suspect his wife is involved at his disappearance, just as he is amused at seeing her tackle the chores that used to be his domain. He feels unshackled and free as he spends his time doing puzzles, reading and observing his family and their neighbors. He also happily realizes that he is seeing more of his daughters' lives than he did before, as the teenagers purposefully avoided their "uncool" dad. For the first few days he lives in the attic, he continues to sneak food and amenities from his house. He realizes he no longer cares about any of the things he used to, like having clients and being freshly showered and shaved, and vows that he won't take anything from his old life or spend the money he has in his wallet. Instead he lives on his wits. He forages each night through the trash and showers in the backyard bathroom built by his neighbor, Dr. Sondervan, who runs a small home for mentally disabled youth.

As months go by and he grows a beard and long hair, Howard is free to walk about town during the day, where people dismiss him as homeless. The only people who discover his secret are Herbert and Emily, two of Dr. Sondervan's residents, who followed him back to the attic one day. He reflects on the beginning of his relationship with Diana, whom he met when she was dating his best friend Dirk Morrison, an extremely competitive Wall Street trader. Through manipulation and dishonesty, Howard managed to take Diana away from Dirk, and as he thinks back, Howard wonders if he ever truly loved her. Nevertheless, he realizes that by simply disappearing, he has the upper hand in controlling her love life. If he had just divorced her, she would be free to date other men, by while he is missing under mysterious circumstances, she can't easily move on to another man.

As summer turns into fall, Howard no longer basks in his freedom but instead feels like he has become a prisoner of the attic—and his choices. He has an epiphany and realizes that the old Howard had been a selfish, jealous and resentful husband and father, who made himself out to be a victim. He feels happy to be free from the old him but also feels that his family is happier without him. At the same time, he realizes he has never loved Diana more. He walks out one day onto the sidewalk, but Diana doesn't recognize him and goes inside.

Diana appears to be developing a romantic relationship, and Howard is stunned when he sees it is with Dirk Morrison. Howard knows Diana and Dirk have probably discovered the lies he told that broke them up years ago. He decides to give Diana an honest chance this time to pick whom she wants to be with. After getting himself cleaned up and buying a new suit, Howard works up the courage to walk back into his house. As he sees his wife and daughters decorating the Christmas tree, he envisions them being overjoyed at his return, and also envisions a second scenario in which they respond with fear. He pauses, and then comes in through the front door and announces, "I'm home."


  • Bryan Cranston as Howard Wakefield
  • Jennifer Garner as Diana Wakefield
  • Beverly D'Angelo as Babs, Diana's mother
  • Jason O'Mara as Dirk Morrison, Howard's former friend and Diana's ex-boyfriend
  • Ian Anthony Dale as Ben Jacobs, an attorney at Howard's firm
  • Alexander Zale as Dr. Sondervan, the Wakefields' next-door neighbor
  • Pippa Bennett-Warner as Emily, mentally disabled ward of Dr. Sondervan
  • Isaac Leyva as Herbert, mentally disabled ward of Dr. Sondervan.
  • Ellery Sprayberry as Giselle Wakefield, Howard and Diana's teen daughter
  • Victoria Bruno as Taylor Wakefield, Howard and Diana's teen daughter

Critical response

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 75% based on 59 reviews, with an average rating of 6.5/10. On Metacritic, the film has a score of 62 out of 100, based on 24 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".

Professional and non-professional critics alike tend to have polarized views of the film. Many praise it highly, while others fault it for portraying an unlikable character or ending on the ambiguous note that Doctorow struck in his story. On RogerEbert.com, the critic Glenn Kenny said Swicord "has made a smart, intriguing, sometimes provocative and often oddly moving picture of Wakefield," which he called "kind of a wonder."

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Wakefield (film)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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