When we first meet Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston), he is dressed in a business suit, overcoat and is carrying a briefcase as he navigates the streets of New York City. He is headed for Grand Central Station to catch a train home. It’s obvious from his appearance and walk that he has done this many times. In fact, it looks as it’s wearing him down. He follows what must be routine, buying water at a shop, boarding the train and dictating some sort of brief on a recording device. He stops wearily in almost mid-sentence with his correspondence and stops the recording, a look of exhaustion on his face.
As he sits there staring out of the train window, he gets a call from his wife. He looks at his phone and decides to ignore the call; it’s obvious that he doesn’t want to talk to her. As the train rounds a bend, it loses power, with the lights on the car shutting off and the train comes to a halt. We next see Howard and the rest of the passengers walking down the tracks in the dark. The look on Howard’s face says that this is just part of the bad day that Howard is having.
Howard begins talking to us via voice-over talking about how when things like a power outage happen, you can see how civilization is crumbling. Howard walks through his neighborhood, filled with storefronts and houses that are dark and foreboding. He arrives at his house and can see his wife, Diana (Jennifer Garner) and his twin daughters in the kitchen, surrounded by lit candles. Howard notices that a raccoon is in front of his garage door. He yells at the animal but its unfazed. Frustrated by the day, he slings his briefcase at the raccoon, who promptly heads through an open door to the garage. Howard curses beneath his breath and begins to head for his house. He then stops, turns to look at the garage, and then defeated, he goes into the garage to evict the raccoon.
Howard goes inside, tries the light switch, but the power is still out. He uses his phone to look around the garage but can’t locate the raccoon. He heads upstairs to the garage attic. There is the usual accumulation of boxes and odd furniture that you find in storage from a family of four. After a bit of a search, he finds the raccoon and is successful in getting the animal to leave.
Howard looks out of a window in the attic to see that his family is still in the kitchen. Just then, the lights come back on, and his family begins to move around the kitchen. We see his wife phone him again, which he just ignores again. It turns out that they have been having a long-standing fight, and Howard has no desire to talk to his wife. Howard sits down in a big chair that is positioned in front of the window. Howard is about to make a decision that will change his and his family’s life.
Writer/director Robin Swicord brings us a strange tale of a man who decides to go off the grid and watch his family from a garage attic window to see how they will do without him. It’s a film that makes you feel like a voyeur, as we see the world only through the eyes of Howard. As he looks down on his family, he is amused at how they react to his disappearance. It’s an experiment that goes farther than Howard ever intended. Instead of avoiding a fight with his wife, Howard avoids living in the real world. The film tells the story in present day and flashbacks as Howard reflects on his courtship and then marriage to Diana. The flashbacks tell us a story of how they met (he stole her from a good friend who Howard was willing to double cross to get Diana), their dating life and their early years when things were going well. Howard also flashbacks to rougher times; fights with his wife, his kids ignoring him and his determination to value his job over his family.
Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner are the reasons to see this film. Cranston gives a touching, multi-layered performance, appearing in every scene in the movie. Cranston brings the part of Howard to life as he slowly descends into madness, driven by his guilt, self-doubt and his willingness to commit to this life off the grid, going as far as eating from trash cans and wearing clothes that haven’t been washed for months. It’s a powerful performance that is at times maddening and other times deeply moving. Garner is even better than Cranston, giving a performance that is stunning, especially since half of her scenes are done in silence, as Howard observes her from afar in his attic window. It’s a beautiful and natural performance that gives us more information from her body language than we could ever get if we could hear what her character is saying.
Robin Swicord has given us a unique look at what it means to truly check out of life, abandoning family and civilization for an experiment in isolation and reflection. Are Howard and his family better off without each other or is that connection between a man and a woman more important than individuality? It’s a question that Wakefield just might answer for you. My Rating: Full Price
My movie rating system from Best to Worst: 1). I Would Pay to See it Again 2). Full Price 3). Bargain Matinee 4). Cable 5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again
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