Fences (2016)

Directed by Denzel Washington
Written by August Wilson

There is always something very distinctive about films which are based on successful stage plays. Musicals like Chicago or Les Miserables may be the most obvious examples, but seeing dramatic works adapted to the screen also has a very distinctive feel to it. They are often noted by big performances, limited locales, strong interpersonal relationships and a lot of dialogue. Like a lot of dialogue. If you think about stage plays, most of them don’t feature a lot of action. War Horse may be the exception, but that was a marvel to produce on the stage, not the screen. But think about Glengarry Glen RossWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Streetcar Named Desire. Big performances, limited locales. So with Denzel Washington, king of the big performance makes his directorial debut adapting August Wilson’s acclaimed Fences to the screen, why would we possibly expect anything else?

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is an aging garbage man in Pittsburgh who works hard with his best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), comes home to his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to drink a little and raise hell when applicable. After being denied his dream of playing professional baseball, and serving time in prison, Troy met Rose, the best thing that ever happened to him. But as they raise their son, and deal with Troy’s other son from a previous marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and Troy’s disabled brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), the Maxson’s struggle to get by while also, at times, struggling to co-exist in racially discriminatory 1950s. Troy grapples with his flaws and past mistakes in an effort to raise his son Cory to not be everything he was, which results in numerous instances of tough love between the Maxson’s.

To no surprise, Fences is very much so a performances based film. Denzel Washington is back to his big, loud performances that made him a star in the 1990s. Even better is the master class put on by Viola Davis as his wife Rose, who similarly delivers a very big, emotional turn as a woman trapped in a relationship with the man she loves, but also a man who annoys her and takes advantage of her to no end. Davis makes her so human, relatable, sympathetic as to make the relationship between Rose and Troy heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. Despite a rather unfortunate role for Mykelti Williamson as the disabled brother, the entire cast here shines in one of the great ensemble performances of the year. But, if you’re like me, while I recognize the greatness of the work here, the size of the performances are a little offputting at times, but not enough for me to have anything but glowing things to say about the cast, Viola Davis in particular.

I was rather surprised by Washington’s ability as a director behind the camera here. While he rarely reels in his cast, especially himself who seems to have carte blanche in his performance, getting out their way seems to be just as smart a decision as micro-managing. I can’t say I blame him given the talented cast he is working with. In general, the pacing of the film is rather smooth. For a film with long scenes of talking and speeches and not much action, Washington keeps the film engaging enough to not get lost, even if the run time nears the two and half hour mark. It rarely drags, which is a great testament to August Wilson, who adapted his own work here as screenwriter.

There are some compelling moral questions at play in Wilson and Washington’s work, which makes for a conflicted viewing. On one hand, I found the character of Troy to be quite unlikable, and yet by the end he has become somehow endearing for being the type of father who is deeply flawed, but who recognizes those flaws to ensure his numerous mistakes are not duplicated by the next generation. The performances are great, and big, and at times, for my taste at least, a little too big to be frank. Ultimately, struggling to fully sympathize with Troy and even Rose, who sticks by this flawed man, restrains my enthusiasm for the film, but Wilson’s characters are layered enough to allow for various interpretations. I may not like these characters much, but Wilson assures I understand their motivations and flaws. Fences is, perhaps, a film which may be remembered a little better than it was experienced.

*** – Good

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