Jennifer Garner and Bryan Cranston in Wakefield (Gilles Mingasson/IFC Films)

 Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a successful Manhattan attorney, accustomed to commuting daily on the Metro North railroad from Grand Central Station to his large, comfortable house in the suburbs. He is well dressed, respected, and successful by every measure, yet a gnawing emptiness lurks under the smooth exterior. The premise of suburban ennui may be well-trod, but the highly original, absurdist execution of the idea makes Wakefield stirring and piercingly memorable.

The opening scenes take time to establish the overwhelming hustle and bustle, the crushing repetitiveness, the wretched sameness of the commute. In just a few quick early images, we understand why someone would go mad after enduring that Metro North slog day after day for years. And go mad Howard Wakefield does, when he returns home one evening to find a raccoon loitering in front of the garage across from his house. He shoos the raccoon away, but it flees to the attic above his garage. Wakefield follows it up there, shoos it away again, but realizes that he feels oddly comfortable in the raccoon’s attic nest, more at home living something of a raccoon’s life than in his role as a father and husband.

What starts as a bit of wish fulfillment, the popular fantasy of spying on one’s own funeral, becomes something much more. Initially, Wakefield plans to just spend the night in the little attic—but to his surprise, he finds that he has felt more genuinely alive in this little escape from his life than he has in many years. He resolves to remain in his self-imposed exile, though he rationalizes the guilt of abandoning his wife and kids by saying “I did not leave my family. I left myself.”

This is the existential core of the film—to find himself, he must leave himself. The nature of his exile is necessarily open-ended, as it must continue until he “finds himself.” So he commits to this lofty, ethereal goal, resolving to stick with his quest until he feels like he has found himself again, after having been lost for so long.

Based on an E.L. Doctorow short story, the film takes place mostly inside that tiny attic or following Wakefield as he scavenges for leftover bits of food in his family’s trash cans. Eventually, he branches out into Dumpster diving in alleyways in the center of town. While not exactly brimming with incident narratively, Wakefield remains compelling in its careful chronicling of the tactile details involved with scrounging for the means of survival from gutters, Dumpsters, and trash bins. We see how he carefully conserves supplies and deals with the uncomfortable realities of handling bodily functions without access to running water or plumbing. The film inventively assembles these images of basic, grimy survival in a consistently creative, engaging way.

Wakefield is also one of the more literarily impressive films in some time, with Cranston’s narration from the original story comprising vast sections of the film. His voice-over offers passages of rare, sophisticated insight into survival, contentment, and mercy, among other themes. This literary aspect is a welcome addition to the rest of the film, which is essentially Cast Away in the suburbs.

This is more or less a one man show, though Jennifer Garner as his wife, Diana, has a few interesting moments in flashbacks depicting their courtship—which is a change of pace, since everything that takes place in the present is seen from Wakefield’s point of view. But Cranston’s performance is easily one of the best of the year, and probably his best performance in a film. As always, Cranston commits fully, slurping soupy ice cream from the trash, letting raccoons climb all over him, and worse. If he isn’t nominated for an award, something is seriously wrong.

A savage journey of self-discovery, a witty critique of the hollow suburbs, and a literary feast featuring one of our best actors at the peak of his powers, Wakefield is that rarest thing nowadays: a film for adults.

Written and Directed by Robin Swicord, based on the short story by E.L. Doctorow
Released by IFC Films
USA. 109 min. Rated R
With Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, and Beverly D’Angelo