Thursday, December 22, 2016

'Fences' review

Fences is regarded by many as a full-blown American classic, so it was only a matter of time before August Wilson's iconic play made it to the big screen. Originally produced on Broadway in 1987 with a cast that included James Earl Jones, Mary Alice, and Courtney B. Vance, the play eventually won a series of Tony Awards, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Wilson. In 2010, Fences won even more Tony Awards for a new Broadway revival of the show, which starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. After nearly three decades, the show has finally been turned into a motion picture, and will be hitting movie theaters all over the country this weekend. A passion picture for Washington, Fences sees the Hollywood superstar reprising his role as Troy Maxson, as well as directing the adaptation. Billed as one of the hottest awards season contenders going into 2016, Fences is already generating plenty of Oscar buzz from critics across the country. But does it live up to the hype?


Absolutely. Sure, Fences does run into some of the issues that many have pointed out already in other reviews. It does feel confined by its stage origins, and the fascinating themes and dynamic characters can often feel slightly restrained by the limitations of the setting. But regardless of that, this is a compelling, rock solid film, one that relies on two show-stopping performances and a plethora of stellar dialogue to keep the audience's interest for well over two hours. The chemistry between the members of the small cast is apparent, and individual scenes carry a thought-provoking weight that sticks with you. Wilson's screenplay is outstanding, and the performances by Washington and Davis are nothing short of magnificent. This is the kind of film that delivers exactly what you expect, and it does so in an entertaining, thoroughly memorable way.

Fences tells the story of the Maxsons, an African-American family living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Troy (Washington) is the patriarch of the family, a loud, brash, dominant personality who oddly lives his life in an understated, quiet manner. He works for a garbage company with his best friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson), counts the days until the weekend, has a drink on Friday nights, and loves his wife, Rose (Viola Davis). But at the heart of this workmanlike grit, there's a seething discontent that eats away at Troy. He was a great baseball player, but because of the ugly racism of America, he was never given a chance in the major leagues. And despite the good things in his life, he's been stuck in the same place doing the same thing for almost two decades. In addition, his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), has a prickly, contentious relationship with him, and there seems to be a growing divide in the family. As additional drama pops up, Troy's life is thrown into total and complete chaos, while Rose, Cory, and the rest of the family attempt to pick up the pieces.


This a movie that is driven almost entirely by its spectacular cast, so it feels appropriate to start by talking about the wonderful performances in Fences. Denzel Washington will probably finish in a close second in the Oscar race to Manchester by the Sea's Casey Affleck, but he still delivers an incredible performance in this film. Troy is the center of the Fences universe, and everything that happens in the play revolves around him. It's a monumental role and a tough task for any actor, but if anyone can pull it off, it's Denzel Washington. With Troy, Washington finds a character who uses his larger-than-life personality to control the world around him and mask the inner discontent of his life. As things get out of hand quickly, you can see Troy trying to hold it all together. There's an odd mix of vulnerability, bravado, and insanity that comes with this part, and Washington does an incredible job of creating a complex, flawed character that audiences can empathize with and understand.

Viola Davis is the clear front-runner for Best Supporting Actress (while the fight over category fraud continues, she's in the Supporting race to stay), and in a particularly weak year for the category, she's going to walk away with the statue, especially after being shockingly defeated in 2011 by Meryl Streep. Davis is pretty muted during the first half, allowing Denzel to dominate the spotlight and control the progression of the narrative. But after one rather stunning plot development, Fences becomes Davis' film and she's a screen force to be reckoned with. Her "Oscar moment" has been on display in every single trailer and advertisement for the film, but that doesn't make it any less stunning when you see it play out in the film. The emergence of Rose as a strong, independent voice in the story is such an important moment, and Davis pulls it off with remarkable ease. She deserves the Oscar and it's not even going to be a contest.


Fences belongs to Washington and Davis, but the supporting actors have a chance to shine at every turn as well. Jovan Adepo has the largest part as Cory, who comes to blows with his father at many points during the story. Adepo is good at keeping his rage subdued, and every scene between him and Washington feels like it could boil over into a fist fight at any moment. Stephen Henderson is also excellent as Mr. Bono, the longtime friend of Troy and his co-worker in the sanitation business. Henderson is a warm, likable presence on the screen, and he has a scene late in the movie with Washington that is simply heartbreaking. Mykelti Williamson is great as Gabriel, Troy's brother who was permanently disabled in the war. Gabriel is a tragic character, but also an endearing one, and Williamson is able to successfully create that balance. Finally, Russell Hornsby is terrific as Lyons, although he's the only character who feels mildly slighted by the script. Nonetheless, his rhetorical back-and-forth with Washington is often hilarious. Audiences will be attracted to Fences because of the stunning cast, and they will not be disappointed by this truly impressive ensemble.

Washington's direction in this film isn't too flashy, preferring to execute each scene in a straight, workmanlike fashion. But while his film doesn't have the cinematic virtuosity of something like Chazelle's La La Land or Jenkins' Moonlight, Washington still finds creative, compelling ways to bring the themes of Wilson's work to life on the big screen. At its core, Fences is a story about a man who sees himself in a constant battle against God, against Satan, and against life itself. Troy's life is a simple one, but it's marred by tragedy, regret, and missed opportunities, and while he has fought off the demons in the past, he can't do it forever. Washington establishes the setting and the characters with precision, and slowly builds the plot to its shattering climax. I don't know if Fences ever hits an emotional tipping point, but there's an assured confidence to every moment, and the end result is nothing short of consistently fascinating.


Fences is an intense, well-acted movie with an astonishingly good screenplay that will keep you gripped for 138 minutes. It tackles some interesting ideas, features a few standout moments, and introduces some dynamic characters. For what it's setting out to do, Fences hits the mark and stands as an accomplished, exceptionally crafted film. The inherent issue of bringing this masterful play to the big screen is that it never really has the opportunity to live and breathe as a piece of cinema. Fences doesn't really have much in the way of cinematic flair, which is why I don't see myself revisiting this one in the future. It does just about everything right, but by adapting such a dialogue-heavy piece of work, Washington was always setting himself up for this. The film is still vibrant and engaging, but the basic limitations of the story prevent it from ever soaring to life.

Nonetheless, even though it does stick very closely to its Broadway origins, Fences is still a film that will connect with a lot of people. The audience at my screening was surprisingly lively, laughing, gasping, and even applauding at various points during the film. Denzel Washington hasn't created any kind of masterwork here, but he has taken an exceptional play and translated it to the big screen in an incredibly effective fashion. Led by the Oscar-worthy performances of Viola Davis and Washington himself, as well as Wilson's terrific adaptation of his own play, Fences is a spellbinding, endlessly captivating rendition of a great American saga. It stands out as a riveting Christmas treat in a season that has been defined by some truly lackluster movies.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                               (8/10)


Image Credits: IMDB

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