Director: Denzel Washington
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.)
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Release Date: December 16, 2016
Bron Creative, MACRO, Scott Rudin Productions, and Paramount Pictures.
Written by: August Wilson, based on his play of the same name.
There are great actors and then there are Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Even in films that have not worked well or critics and/or audiences have poorly responded to, they command our screens, steal away our attention, and make every line reading they give something worth listening to. In short, there are in a master class of acting prowess few, if any, can hope to achieve.
With Fences, the two simply circle around one another impressively, just as they did on Broadway in a 2010 revival of the late-playwright August Wilson’s 1983 play. Both Washington and Davis won Tonys for their portrayals of Troy and Rose Maxson, respectively, a husband and wife in 1950s Pittsburgh. Troy works alongside his best friend Mr. Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) as a garbage collector and lives for Fridays, when he gets paid and focuses on a trusty bottle of gin that he shares with Mr. Bono, often in the backyard of the Maxson home.
Rose is a homemaker and tries to maintain order in the household, keep Troy on the straight and narrow, and serve as a voice of reason for Troy’s two sons – 30-something stepson and struggling musician Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and 17-year-old college football hopeful, Cory (Jovan Apedo). We learn that Troy’s brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), has a cognitive disorder related to injuries sustained in World War I. He arrives randomly throughout the film, mostly unsupervised and drops in frequently, espousing on opening the gates for St. Peter, chasing away the hellhounds, and always remembering to bring Rose a rose and waiting on a sandwich she always makes for him whenever he visits.
In a series of long conversations and monologues, Washington, the director, lets his actors take ownership of their characters and his apparent trust in them reaps great rewards. Washington commands much of the first hour-and-a-half, lording over the proceedings with an intense and rather unpredictable personality that leaves a lot of people laughing, some cowering in fear, and others trying to sort out Troy’s wild and outrageous stories, looking to separate truth from fiction, or somewhere in between.
Davis builds her character slowly, meticulously, until she finds her voice in a powerful sequence involving Troy revealing some painful truth to Rose. In earlier moments, as Troy pontificates, Rose verbally tries to keep him in his lane, reminding him to be nice, to listen to his children, something of a soft counterpoint to Troy’s ramblings and bitter resentment over a missed opportunity to convert a Hall of Fame-level Negro League baseball career into the major leagues.
For Troy, racism lies at the heart of his failings and he frequently talks about the opportunities that were taken from him by the “white man.” In some ways, it adds fuel to his already volatile emotional fire, but Troy is broken, and as Rose later learns, perhaps beyond all repair.
In August Wilson’s intense and emotional work, which he adapted into a screenplay prior to his death in 2005, fences exist literally and metaphorically. Rose has asked Troy to build a fence around their property for years, and Troy uses it as a way to try and engage with Cory every Saturday. Cory, however, is too busy for his dad’s liking. He has hopes to play college football and has arranged not only for a recruiter to visit his parents, but also has been conscientious enough to have his job at a local grocery be held for him until the season is over. Father and son have nothing which resembles a close relationship, as Troy badgers Cory over every decision he makes. Those fence-building sessions often lead to a few pencil marks, a few saw cuts, and the wood going back in the bin. There’s always another Saturday after all.
Washington retains a stage-like feel to his film, which makes sense, as most of the film takes place in and around the Maxson home. Wilson’s dialogue is dense, but crackles and pops with a cast who each deliver powerful moments alongside Washington and Davis’ astonishing work. A sparse, elegant score by Marcelo Zarvos and an observant, studious camera from Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen keep us rapt with attention.
The film never takes us beyond that stage-like feel, however. It all ties into the film’s claustrophobia and the fact, as Mr. Bono tells Troy, “some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in.” And fences are everywhere. The fence Rose wants to have built around the property. The fence that Troy wants to put around his son’s dreams. The fence that stops Troy from being happy for any accomplishment outside of his own. The fence that limits Troy from watching his oldest son perform at a jazz club. The fences that Troy boasts about hitting over, with the supposed countless number of home runs he hit in the Negro Leagues.
Fences will not uplift you or send you out of the theater with a Hollywood ending. The film, the play really, lives deep inside the gut, conflicted through and through with how to express its characters feelings and emotions. There is a raw, exposed nerve-like quality to all of this which is equally refreshing and uncomfortable to watch. And so, as the film finds a wider audience, some will understandably recoil against this and, as a few people remarked when leaving the theater, come away saying, “I did not like this at all.”
But Washington stays true to the words Wilson put down on paper. He captures a family in turmoil, unflinching in the depiction of a complex man, lost in his own mind, and a wife and mother who has given up so much to try and hold together what lies in front of her. Though melancholy, sad, and challenging at times, Fences has raw, enigmatic power in Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and never stands afraid of showing us a slice of life that has seldom been shown to us on screen. Troy, Rose, Cory, Mr. Bono – these are voices we need to hear and see now more than ever.
Fences is a difficult film to embrace but needs to be held close all the same.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- Raw emotion and power living in every frame, Fences delivers one of the finest acting ensembles in recent memory and a tough, unflinching, look at anger, emotion, and the places it lives and hides within all of us.
- So, honestly, this is a bit bleak and intense and humor/levity is momentary and fleeting when it arrives. Some have pushed back against the film’s lack of air, and find it too heavy and intense to be “entertaining.” Make of that what you will.