Wakefield is based in equal parts on a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story of the same name and an adaptation of Hawthorne’s story by E.L. Doctorow in The New Yorker. Directed and written by Robin Swicord, the film is about a man named Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) who, on a whim, decides to hide away from his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and their two daughters in their garage attic.
In this Doctorow and Hawthorne adaptation, themes of urban life versus nature abound as Howard retreats from society, rediscovering a primitive side to himself. The two original stories concerned themselves with similar themes, each reflecting the age in which they were written. Swicord’s film likewise reflects the state of 2017 well in terms of how many men seem to relate to women.
A central thematic element pits the family unit against the concept of individual identity as mutually exclusive. Above all, Wakefield acts as an allegory for the process through which men must go to stop externalising their own issues against women. Howard struggles through an intentionally self-sequestered life, his voyeuristic tendencies revealing him as insecure and passive aggressive, shining a light on the misogyny he often unconsciously directs towards his wife. Ultimately, the story hinges on whether Howard decides to remain alone in his new internal world rather than accept his shortcomings and go home.
Self-Revelation Through Voyeurism
The initial conflict for Howard is how he sees himself solely as father and husband. He feels his individual self is lost. While he retreats into the attic, retreating from the world, he laments his life as that of a victim. He frequently speaks in terms of ‘other’: “This is how they get you.” He uses ‘they’ in reference to everyone external to himself: family, wife, children, society. He does not yet see himself as isolated, even while literally extracting himself from conventional society.
Even prior to retreating into the attic Howard had voyeuristic tendencies, such as playing puppeteer over the relationship between Diana, before they were married, and his old friend Dirk (Jason O’Mara). He watched on from the outside, manipulating both Dirk and Diana. Although, as usual, he refuses to see himself as the problem, and gradually he grew to lay blame for all his own issues on others.
It isn’t until Howard stops understanding himself as a victim that he sees the prison he’s built for himself, in a figurative and quite literal sense. Then, he allows for change. He becomes a voyeur outside his own life, both looking on as it passes by without him and also in a critical, self-reflective sense. Once he begins to feel the loneliness of isolation, he turns the voyeur eye on himself, thus attempting to deal with the underlying causes for his misogynistic treatment of Diana and the general unhappiness of his life.
The most significant moment of the misogyny Howard projects onto Diana is when he watches her in the window while she’s half undressed. He quips that seeing her without clothes reminds him of money. Without totally understanding his own feelings, Howard turns his own wife into a commodity, as if her naked body is a currency. This directly relates to how he and Diana met.
His chief concern is that Diana is either thinking of cheating on him, or that she may already be unfaithful. He expects unfaithfulness, like it’s in her nature. It’s nothing to do with her behaviour, though, and everything to do with his own. Stemming from the fact that he stole Diana purposefully away from Dirk, Howard’s insecurities propel him towards resenting his wife, assuming she will leave him, too. This is typical repressed guilt, which transforms into unconscious misogyny directed at Diana. It takes retreating from his life to see himself in an honest light.
Howard’s greatest self-revelation comes when he admits: “You see, I never left my family, I left myself.” In this moment he sees himself honestly: the misogynistic way in which he treats Diana, as well as how his feelings about the world are in reality internalised emotions he harbours against himself. Afterwards he begins a path back to himself; a new, hopefully better version.
From Society to Primitivity and Back Again
In order for Howard to effectively heal, he first reverts to a primitive state. Even early on it’s surreal watching Howard spy on his own family, eating a baked potato from the trash and making commentary to himself about their daily comings and goings. Meals such as this become commonplace in his new life. So much so when his family leaves for Thanksgiving he digs his neighbour’s holiday leftovers from the bin to dine in the attic.
Howard’s seen in juxtaposition with actual homeless people. They retain their humanity, where he is less homeless and more a primitive man. After this point he begins understanding himself. He lets go of his victim mentality and comprehends the level of absurdity in his own logic. He relinquishes the idea that his wife’s actions are anything but the externalised issues he has with himself.
Howard comes to terms with the fact that freedom from responsibility is not the same as individual freedom. Moreover, he figures out that his life as a father and a husband isn’t social conformity. Rather it’s a part of him, part of his purpose. Living in his primitive state, Howard comes to see that without his family he holds no purpose, no ambition, and they complete the part of him he now feels is genuinely missing. However, he’s left with a choice of either remaining with what Hawthorne called the “Outcast of the Universe,” with no place in the world except on his own, or returning to his family and society.
Wakefield is a tour-de-force out of Cranston, on whose performance the entire film rests. The introspective nature of the story allows him time to explore the heart of a man at odds with everything in the world around him, only to discover he is truly at odds with himself. Howard’s own failings and insecurities cause him to look outward until his retreat inward gives him a much needed epiphany.
Swicord may have intended a broader scope. Yet the dilemma of Howard works in perfect allegorical fashion as a road map for how the male gender must reach inward to deal with misogyny rather than look towards exterior excuses. Diana remains a secondary character with few lines, as opposed to Howard in the lead and narrator on screen for the majority of the film. His perspective requires close attention, not because her perspective doesn’t matter: Howard’s is the one which needs changing.
After a primitive transition and return to society, he understands Diana’s value as a person instead of currency. He also understands his roles as father and husband are not societal convention, they come to represent purpose and a happiness not mutually exclusive from individual freedom. Mostly he accepts that each member of his family is also an individual; whereas he used to see them as against him, he now sees this as a projection of his own inflated insecurities.
The ending to his story is not in his own hands, as he believes. After the abandonment of his wife and daughters for no other reason than his own insecure masculinity, Howard is left not with the decision to come home, but at the mercy of whether they even want him back.
Can Wakefield and other like-minded films centred on male characters be considered feminist in their aims? Or are they merely friendly to the concept of feminism by tackling men’s issues with women?
Wakefield opened in theaters on May 19.
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