Wakefield, which premiered at last fall’s Telluride and Toronto festivals, gives Bryan Cranston what can only be characterized as a remarkable tour de force role. He plays Howard Wakefield, a seemingly successful man with the perfect career and family life who suddenly just drops out one day. However, in writer-director Robin Swicord’s riveting and insightful adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s 2012 short story, this man does not go far after mysteriously going missing from his office and his house. One day instead of walking in the front door of the comfortable suburban home he lives in with wife (Jennifer Garner) and kids, he sets up shop across the driveway in the attic of the garage that has a window where he observes his family from a distance.

He goes out at night, feeding himself with scraps from garbage cans in the neighborhood, but most of the time he is just camped out in the attic where we hear, in voice-over, his thoughts on where his life has been, where it is now and where it might be going. In flashbacks we learn more about the man, his career and particularly his personal life and marriage. As the weeks turn into months and different seasons, Cranston, slowly growing a long beard and descending into the darkness of his own mind, gives us a portrait of a man in the midst of a severe life crisis, and it is fascinating stuff.

Doctorow wrote this as a short story and on the surface it would seem unlikely material for a feature film, but Swicord hits just the right notes, sometimes even whimsically, to keep it from going off the rails or ever becoming boring and pedantic. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), this film in many ways reminded me of another taken from a short story, John Cheever’s The Swimmer, which was turned into a 1968 film starring Burt Lancaster as a man who swims from one neighbor’s pool to another in what is increasingly revealed to be a nervous breakdown. That film worked, and that Wakefield works is largely in the hands of the lead actor. Swicord is blessed to have Cranston, who seemingly can play just about anything with complete conviction and irony. He’s sensational as this man who is not exactly the type to win the empathy of an audience but somehow makes him fully dimensional and believable even in the most extreme circumstances. Much of this he has to do with just facial expressions as most of his dialogue is delivered in voice-over narration, no easy trick.

Garner, as always, is very fine as well as a wife suddenly thrust into a bizarre situation, but this is almost totally Cranston’s show. The film has one of the longest lists of people with producer in their title that I have seen lately, but it just goes to show that a small and challenging indie project like this that was shot in just 20 days sometimes takes a village to make. It was well worth the effort. IFC releases the Wakefield in New York on Friday and in L.A. and on VOD the following week. If you want to see a smart adult entertainment with food for thought, I say go.

Do you plan to see Wakefield? Let us know what you think.