Man, dads can be a drag.
Troy Maxon (Denzel Washington) could have had it all. He was a great baseball player who could have made it in the pros, but considering he was black and this was America during the 30’s and 40’s, black people just weren’t allowed in professional sports. So of course, he didn’t get to live out his dream and is now working as a trash man in Pittsburgh, with his lovely wife Rose (Viola Davis), his talented son Cory (Jovan Adepo), his freeloading son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and his special brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson). For Troy, though, everything’s all good – he’s working on putting up a fence around his place and is enjoying time he spends with his wife. However, Troy’s also got a bit of a temper and a bit of a drinking problem, which means that with a combo like that, he tends to get in people’s faces about stuff that he shouldn’t be. But because Troy is very antagonistic, he chooses fights that he sometimes can’t win and due to this, he begins to push those away from him more and more, leaving him to make even worse mistakes.
In case you didn’t know, or better yet, never had to suffer through Intro to Theater, Fences is actually a play by August Wilson. If you didn’t know this and saw the movie version of Fences, you’d probably get the picture real soon and think this immediately. Why?
Uh oh. Denzel mad. Look out.
Because like so many other adaptations of plays before it, Fences feels very stagey.
Which okay, may not be the worst thing, but at times, can still be awfully distracting, especially when the person who is adapting it to the screen, isn’t really trying everything that they can to make it more than just a bunch of people standing in the same room for roughly a half-hour, talking about something that was said nearly ten minutes prior. And Denzel Washington, while a good director, for some reason, doesn’t feel the need to actually get out in the world, live a little, and get this material going elsewhere. Sure, you can call this adaptation “faithful”, but does that mean it was a smart move to be that way?
Probably not and that’s why a good portion of Fences, while compelling, can still feel like it’s stuck inside of itself. It’s the kind of movie where people talk a whole lot and while a lot of it can be interesting to watch and listen to, a lot of it also does feel like filler. Washington, as well as everyone else here, has actually performed this play countless of times, so it makes sense that he would feel such a love and affection for it as to not change a single thing about it, but by the same token, there are bits and pieces that need to be updated.
For instance, there’s a whole other character that we hear so much about and eventually factors into the plot quite a great deal, and yet, we never see said person. Same goes with a few other events that take place off-screen, leaving whatever happened to either never come up again, or come up in conversation in perhaps the most obvious manner imaginable. Once again, it’s understandable that Washington himself would want to be as faithful to this material as humanly possible, but there does come a point when you have to realize that you’re making a film, and because of that, you have to make sure everything works. And also, because you’re making a film, you’re able to do so much more that actually matters.
Uh oh. Viola sad.
Washington just never seems to realize this and unfortunately, Fences does suffer because of it.
But honestly, a good portion of what I said doesn’t even matter, because what Fences truly is, despite what August Wilson may have originally intended for it to come-off as, is an actor’s workshop and man, they clean house here. Even though his directing skills aren’t quite great here, Washington, the actor, is terrific; he’s able to go big, loud and bombastic, as if he was in the theater, playing to the nosebleeds, but he can also be small, quiet and subtle and makes this challenging Troy fella, all the more complex and interesting to watch. Washington knows what he’s working with here and because of that, his performance comes off strong and it’s hard to take your eyes off of him.
But Washington isn’t stingy and doesn’t forget about everyone else here, either. Everyone here, like Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, and the always underrated Stephen Henderson are all quite good, but it’s really the one performance that makes this movie shake the most. Viola Davis, as Rose, is very good because she gets to do the same thing that Washington does – she gets to play it big and loud, but also short, sweet and subtle. She’s great at both sides and together, they create quite the couple that actually makes me want to see them do something else, where they aren’t so confined to just one room, or one backyard, or one topic of conversation the whole, entire time.
Still though, as Fences goes on, it eventually comes together and Washington begins to make more and more sense of his material.
There’s a final-act that’s downplayed and quiet, which is definitely different from the rest of the movie, yet, it still works. In fact, it actually feels like a reward to all of those who sat by, watched and listened to all of these characters hooting and hollering at one another. In a way, it’s a lot more melancholy than the rest of the movie, where it seems like everyone has chilled-out, had a few beers and realized that life is beautiful, so why fret so much? Due to this, the movie may just bring a tear to your eye and make you realize that Washington is a good director.
It’s just a shame that he felt so damn confined.
Consensus: Fences feels exactly like a play, with great performances from everyone, but also a very limited scope in which it lives in.
7 / 10
But it’s okay, they’re both happy. Let’s hope it stays.
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire