The Stories We Tell Ourselves

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on September 1]

What if you could stand outside your life and look at it from a distance? That’s the premise of Wakefield, the recently released film starring Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner. A power outage and a raccoon bring Harold (Cranston) to the space above his garage, from where he can see his wife and two daughters preparing supper.

Of course, he’s not really looking at his life, but at the part of it that goes on without him. And from that point of observation, he sees things he couldn’t see while he was actually living in the middle of it. He sees his twin, teenage daughters, who suddenly (to him, at least) have become distant and treat him like an obstacle to be avoided. From the attic over the garage, he believes he can see them more truly as they are.

And his wife, Diana, becomes what he always suspected she was: a sort of exhibitionist. When he’s in the bedroom with her, and she walks around half-clothed, he hurries to close the curtains so that no one can see her. She says that there isn’t anyone out there to see. But now he’s out there, watching her from across the driveway.

Wakefield is a unique take on suburban malaise, and not just the most recent iteration of films like American Beauty or The Virgin Suicides. There are thematic parallels with the obvious Cranston reference, Breaking Bad. While it is a cancer diagnosis that causes Walter White to hide under good motives his descent into the criminal darkness of his own heart, here Harold’s apathy and inertia is the catalyst for his strange and awkward actions. Both Walter and Harold are able to avoid detection because they have become people so directly opposite from who people think they are.

But that is only to touch on the obvious points of the actual story. The thing that strikes me is how the stories that Harold tells himself about his marriage, family, and life may or may not be grounded in reality. Or, rather, they are grounded in reality, but it is a one-sided and highly selective reality. His isolation in the garage attic parallels his experience of isolation inside his mind.

He has an ability to express his thoughts orally, but it’s a solipsistic enterprise. When he talks to his wife, it’s unclear whether any actual communication passes between them. But more significantly, I wonder if Harold’s cynical observations and discussions with himself behind the attic window are a commentary on our actual situation in modern America. As we observe Harold observing, the way that most of us proceed in every-day life is exposed for what it is: inescapable isolation. True conversation—dialogue—is a highly endangered species. What appears to be dialogue is much closer to a series of independent monologues that just happen to take place in the presence of other people. We do not share assumptions or definitions, which is the root of so many misunderstandings, not only between Harold and Diana, but between and among nearly all of us.

Harold comes close, at one point, to an epiphany regarding his self-inverted thoughts and understandings, replaying a series of moments and questioning his interpretations of those events. But even that doesn’t bring him to the point where he can cut his hair, shave, and return to the life he left behind. What finally does bring him to that point is when he thinks he might lose Diana and his daughters to the man whom he “beat” in the competition for Diana’s heart and marriage vows.

I suspect that many people are going to be frustrated at the end of the film because we don’t see what we want to see: how in the world is he going to explain his months-long absence? But that is to miss the point. This is not really a narrative film in the sense that it has a beginning, middle, and end. We don’t know how far Harold has progressed. We know what causes him to return, but we don’t really know his motives. And—worst of all for our typical movie-watching tendencies—we don’t know how or if he’s going to be able to repair what he’s obviously broken by his absence.

It is much more an existential film, asking the Book of Jonah-like question: what about you? Harold has done something unrealistic, stupid, irresponsible, and uncomfortable to watch. What does his experiment reveal to us about our own lives and families and communication? Do we really understand each other? How much of our perception of other people is unrealistic because we’ve filtered it so heavily through our own preconceptions about how they must feel and think? Sometimes it’s a wonder we can communicate anything at all.

Through the months of his self-isolation, has Harold Wakefield actually come to anything like self-understanding? Will a changed perception of self actually give him a little humility when talking and listening to other people? Who knows? But the better question is whether we will learn anything from Harold about the limitations of our own perception and assumptions and interpretations. As unsatisfying as the conclusion of the film might seem, Wakefield is a great example of film as mirror.

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