Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Jennifer Garner is very good, conveying through her facial expressions what many of the actors around her feel compelled to try and communicate as if they were in a silent film."

In any given year, 90,000 US citizens - one in every 5,000 people - are missing. In some cases, they choose to disappear. According to the experts, the most common reason for adult men to do this is financial difficulty. But Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) isn't facing any particular challenges like that. He just can't face the thought of going home one night, and the longer he stays away, the harder it becomes to go back.

Robin Swicord's film is written entirely from Howard's point of view, and we spend every moment of it in his company. This would be a challenge for any actor. Capable as Cranston is, he struggles with a script that contains not an ounce of subtlety. The supposed revelations on which the story depends for its power are surprising only to Howard himself. At times - particularly during the slow first third - this offers little but frustration. At his best, however, Cranston succeeds in showing us some of the frustration that Howard himself must be feeling, and letting us glimpse the human being behind all the bullshit.

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Getting that far requires patience. Howard is not as easy man to like, and manifestations of his inherent unpleasantness have been layered on thick. Given his comfortable position in life one might expect him to harbour a few illusions about how he got there, but the sense of entitlement with which we are confronted is so vapid and one-dimensional that one half expects him to launch into a rant about ethics in game journalism. He rants about a lot of other things, most of them interesting only to himself, throws in the occasional bit of ableism and general prejudice around gender, and speculates continually about his wife's sexual interests. What we see of their marriage (during extensive flashbacks) is often ugly. Is this a portrait of a typical man, presented with refreshing candour? Or is it something sadder - a portrait of what is assumed to be typical, a snapshot of a world in which nobody is given the benefit of the doubt?

As Howard's wife, who continues to be observed by him from a distance, Jennifer Garner is very good, conveying through her facial expressions what many of the actors around her feel compelled to try and communicate as if they were in a silent film. She is at the emotional core of this, even after Howard rather unconvincingly announces that he has reconnected with emotions of his own. There's also an excellent turn from Pippa Bennett-Warner as a developmentally disabled girl who takes Howard under her wing. Though this is essentially a magical negro character, and disability exists in the film only to provide inspiration for the able-bodied, she succeeds in elevating her role beyond what might have been expected, presenting us with a person rather that another in a long line of cyphers.

The constant voiceover from Cranston and the heavy handed personal voyage of discovery is perhaps more uncomfortable in places than it was intended to be. Uplifting music plays as we see strangers show charity towards the increasingly dishevelled Howard, but it's hard to forget that he has central heating, freshly laundered clothes and platinum credit cards just a few metres away from him at all times, whilst others actually need that help. Should we pity him because he's having an emotional breakdown, or is the ease with which he can let go but stay alive also a symptom of unquestioned privilege? Swicord never really gives us a way in, never lets him become visible as more than a tourist. Given this, there's nothing to balance the grief that Garner shows us.

Is the film intended as satire? Perhaps. There are moments when a strain of black humour seeps through and the drama comes to life. Ultimately, though, there is neither the wit nor the energy here to sustain it for a full hour. Beware: if thou gaze long into a navel, the navel will also gaze into thee.

Reviewed on: 20 May 2017
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Wakefield packshot
A man decides to disappear and live secretly in an outbuilding, observing his family from a distance.

Director: Robin Swicord

Writer: Robin Swicord

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Beverly D'Angelo, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Isaac Leyva

Year: 2016

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: US


EIFF 2017

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