Manhattan corporate lawyer Howard Wakefield (Cranston) is first introduced as a crotchety, miserable presence, growling his way through New York’s Grand Central Station on his commute home to his family. A freak power outage brings his train to a standstill, forcing him to walk to his quiet suburban neighborhood, which he evidently despises. Nothing seems to please this guy.
Finally home, he’s greeted by a raccoon in the driveway. He hates it too, and throws his briefcase at the animal. The critter escapes into his carriage house-turned-garage, so Howard goes after it to scare it out. In the seldom used and dusty room he’s drawn to a big window that looks into the back of his house, allowing him an ideal vantage point for spying on his clan, which he does with a twisted sort of glee.
It’s firmly established that Howard is a grade-A dick: a neglectful father and terrible husband with zero concern for those that love him. This is a man who takes pleasure in witnessing the pains of others.
Quotes from the movie:
• "In the suburbs, we live in nature." That's a quote from my realtor the selling phrase she used when Diana and I first looked at this place. Oh, crap.
And you do see deer, rabbits, crows. But we don't live in nature. That's the point of the suburbs. You live apart from humans. And you're protected from what's wild.
• Have I mentioned the loneliness? When you are alone for so long you forget the simple human exchange.
• "The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath."* Your whole life you hear that quoted. I never got it till now. Mercy is not something you ever get to request. Not strained means not forced. It's given freely. No reason. Just a gift drops from the sky. Twice blessed. Blessing him that gives and him that takes, if I remember it correctly. The giving and the taking all in one.
*строфа из «Венецианского купца»:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes...
Не действует по принужденью милость;
Как теплый дождь, она спадает с неба
На землю и вдвойне благословенна:
Тем, кто дает и кто берет ее.
Doctorow's story is an update on a tale written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1835. The original also follows a married man named Wakefield who pretends to disappear for a long period, except in Hawthorne's version Wakefield moves into an apartment across town rather than haunt his own home. Hawthorne's story transpires from the point of view of an outsider who learns about Wakefield from reading his obituary. At the beginning of the tale, the narrator reveals that Wakefield left his home for decades, then returned without a fuss, and lived out the rest of his life as if he'd never left. The subsequent pages find the narrator imagining how this stranger carried out his scheme and trying to understand why he did it. The narrator ends up unable to provide an explanation, filing the story away as one of the unexplained mysteries of human behavior.
Doctorow's update, on the other hand, makes Wakefield all too knowable. The story transpires from the character's point of view, and he explains precisely why he was unhappy enough with his life to want to disappear from it. Doctorow's Wakefield talks about his unsatisfying marriage and his frustration with daily drudgery, usually in whiny terms. In brief, he's motivated by the sort of middle-aged, suburban malaise that many other movies and novels have explored. I don't find this subject particularly interesting, especially when compared with the eerie metaphysical inquiry that Hawthorne created. I will acknowledge that some fiction and films manage to explore that subject and evoke a Hawthorne sense of mystery at the same time. Doctorow's story and Swicord's film just don’t belong in that category.
In explaining the character's unhappiness from the start, Doctorow and Swicord make Wakefield's disappearance seem less like a mystery and more like an extended prank. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if Wakefield were funny, but none of the humor (at least in the film version) merits anything more than a chuckle.