It’s hard to believe that Breaking Bad finished four years ago. Even now people are still finding the show on Netflix and falling in love with its twists and turns and incredible characters like Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Walt (Bryan Cranston). After Breaking Bad ended you couldn’t help but wonder what its two leads would go on to do next. After all their performances were adored by critics and fans alike and surely they were destined for great things after their five seasons of dramatic perfection. Yet somewhere along the way both men never quite reached the heights expected of them. Breaking Bad was always going to be a tough act to follow and while their more recent projects have been solid they’ve certainly not had the worldwide frenzy that Vince Gilligan’s series managed to create.
While Paul obtained a lead role in the Need for Speed movie and went on to another television lead in Hulu’s The Path alongside Hannibal’s Hugh Dancy it’s fair to say that Cranston has been a little more enigmatic with his choices. Godzilla, Trumbo, Kung Fu Panda 3 and The Infiltrator have all shown his phenomenal acting range while comedic appearances on Robot Chicken and Saturday Night Live showed him in a whole new light to those that don’t remember him from Malcolm in the Middle. Arguably the closest to recreating his Breaking Bad success has been with the portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in HBO’s All the Way alongside Anthony Mackie aka Falcon from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All in all Cranston hasn’t rested on his laurels and always looks to be up for a challenge which brings us to his latest effort in Robin Swicord’s drama Wakefield.
Wakefield is based on a short story by EL Doctorow published in The New Yorker in 2008, which was loosely influenced by a story from way back in 1835 by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The main character Howard Wakefield (Cranston) is a troubled man, not obviously from looking at him or seeing the life he has, but he certainly is. The entire movie revolves around Cranston who carries the whole story on his back which is a tough thing to do but there’s no better man for the job. His depiction of a man who wants to escape his life and the struggles he goes through is a multi-layered performance of comedy and tragedy. The story itself is quite simple with Howard deciding to withdraw from his life and hide in an attic above the garage where he can observe his family and how they react to his disappearance. What starts as an innocent situation becomes so much more.
At first he takes a sadistic pleasure in creating voices for those he sees talking, making up the conversations and enjoying knowing that his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) is upset without him. They had a complex relationship to say the least full of jealousy and Howard feels like he’s taking control by causing this pain to his wife. His disappearance escalates with his image on television and the sheer joy on his face and laughter is quite uncomfortable to see. Howard isn’t a likeable character at this point and you’re left wondering what kind of person could do this to their family. With no responsibilities and not a care in the world there’s a strange sense of freedom and emotional release for him and Cranston plays the whole range with glee. His inner thoughts are shared with the audience on a regular basis and we really get to know and understand his motives. We may not like them but there’s something quite fascinating about what he does.
Of course it doesn’t stay as simple as one man watching his family casually. His jealousy is still there, especially when Ben Jacobs (Ian Anthony Dale) turns up. Howard knows him well from his firm and can see his intentions towards Diana and just when you’re wondering if anyone other than Cranston will get a chance to shine we are shown flashbacks to the beginnings of their relationship. Diana was torn between Dirk (Jason O'Mara) and Howard with the latter orchestrating a break up even though Dirk was meant to be his friend. Wakefield‘s titular character really doesn’t paint himself in a good light throughout the story and he really has been manipulating people his entire life. The longer he stays in the attic the more erratic he becomes, searching for food and hiding behind his ever-growing facial hair in plain sight. A few moments involving the local mentally disabled youths looking after Howard give the film a much needed light relief and more grounded feel but on the whole it’s hard to sympathise with a man who has chosen to do this to himself. As time goes by Howard starts to question why he has done this, who he used to be and who he has become. The single most important question is whether it’s time to go home or not, and the film builds towards a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion unfortunately.
Wakefield is a complex and challenging film that raises many questions as to how you would feel if you were in the same situation. There’s always that temptation to walk away from life but you see how it affects Howard and the kind of man he has been over the years. There is always a price to pay. Cranston delivers in every aspect here, showing the depth that made Walter White such an amazing character to watch in Breaking Bad over the years, and he reaffirms his place as one of the greatest actors on this planet. Wakefield himself may not be likeable but Cranston makes him a truly enjoyable and fascinating person to watch and well worth your time. The supporting cast do a solid job with what they're given, especially considering Cranston often voices their conversations, and on the whole Wakefield is a solid drama that will go underappreciated by many.
EXTRAS: Interviews with cast members Bryan Cranston (10:00) and Jennifer Garner (5:00), as well as writer/director Robin Swicord (5:00).