Howard Wakefield is a cruel man possibly in the throes of a nervous breakdown – but let’s not let that excuse him. In a fit of selfish pique, he one day decides to leave his wife and kids – only not leave them in the traditional sense, but rather he decides to disappear without telling a soul. Which leaves his wife and daughters devastated, but not devastated enough, according to Howard, who in fact has not actually left but is hiding out in the garage so he can more effectively spy on his grieving family.
It’s not as creepy as it sounds – it’s way, way creepier. Wakefield is a difficult movie to watch because Harold is a nasty soul impossible to forgive. He talks to us, the audience, as if we can relate, but no Harold, we can’t. He has everything he ever wanted – ever cheated in order to get, but when he finds that it’s not enough, he doesn’t just abandon it, he makes it into a game, one that his family can never win because they don’t even know they’re playing, but even if they did, the deck isn’t just stacked against them, the rules are impossible. It’s not really his family that’s the problem – it’s Harold’s own dark, empty soul. And it’s terrifying to get glimpses of it as he spends months becoming a feral creature up in the attic of his detached garage. He risks starvation and exposure just to carry out this cruel little experiment. Is he missed enough? Grieved enough? His absence respected enough? No one can ever measure up – but Harold himself conveniently escapes his judgement.
Harold is brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston, which makes him riveting, but all the more loathsome to watch. But really it’s his wife who’s the most compelling – we see and experience her only through Harold’s narrow focus. Jennifer Garner has the difficult task of animating her, a woman who can never truly be real to us, even if we do project our own anguish and frustration on to her. I can’t say I enjoyed this film; it’s a bit dull and uneventful, but more than that, it’s just detestable. Harold is an anti-hero incapable of redemption. But there are two fine performances and ideas about marriage and identity that will challenge the least of us. Who are we really – are we fully knowable to our partners? And do we all have secret garage moments?