[This is a re-post of my Fences review. The film is now playing in wider release.]
I hadn’t seen or read August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences before seeing Denzel Washington’s film adaptation, but knowing that it started out as a play makes you appreciate Washington’s growth as a director. While the handful of locations makes the script strain against its stage origins (Wilson also wrote the screenplay), Washington wisely tries to tell the story cinematically, relying on thoughtful compositions and subtle editing to help bring his story to life. And while the story is set in the 1950s, Fences, with its focus on race and economic mobility, feels more immediate than ever. However, what truly brings Fences to life are the powerhouse performances from Washington and co-star Viola Davis.
Troy Maxson (Washington) is a garbage man working in 1950s Pittsburgh. Given to pontificating about his lot in life, Troy can barely contain his rage about the hand he’s been dealt. He repeatedly remarks about not having a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. While he loves his wife Rose (Davis), he also lords over his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), bullying the young man to leave behind football (even though it would offer the chance for a college scholarship) and focus on working at the local grocery store. For Troy, who believes that he could have been a star baseball player if he hadn’t been written off because of his age, the world is a cold, cruel, uncaring place, and he must behave in kind.
Of course, this is just scratching the surface of Troy’s character, and his motives and actions can be thoughtfully debated. Is he a cold pragmatist or does he just have no patience for idealism? Has he been consumed by bitterness or does he simply see the world as it truly is? Washington, through both his performance and his direction, offers us no easy answers. While we’re probably not meant to like Troy, we’re supposed to have at least some sympathy for his situation. He’s not a good guy, but he’s not a monster either, and the complexities the character presents makes him fascinating as he sings through Wilson’s extraordinary dialogue.
Washington excels at playing these complicated protagonists. While he seems to relish playing the action hero, ultimately his most memorable roles are characters who are morally questionable but come from a recognizable place. Troy Maxson is in that same tradition, and yet the performance doesn’t feel like a retread. If anything, it feels like the kind of performance that only Washington could deliver. It’s angry, it’s raw, it’s eloquent, and it’s captivating.
But it wouldn’t work without Davis balancing him out. Rose is the other side of the equation—the person who has suffered just as much as Troy if not more so, but rather than be consumed by bitterness and anger, she still has love for the people in her life. She doesn’t take her frustrations out on Cory or Troy’s mentally disabled brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson). However, she’s not a saint figure either. She’s not some impossible woman who absorbs all of the pain thrown her way. She feels every ounce of injustice, and through Davis’ outstanding performance, we feel that pain too.
If there’s one major obstacle that Washington can’t overcome, it’s the length of the story. Fences runs over two hours long, and in a theater with a two-act structure that includes an intermission, that works. You watch the first half, take a break, process, and return for the second act to see how it all comes together. As a film, Fences is a bit of a marathon, and while all of the performances are enough to keep you riveted, at the end you feel a bit exhausted and also a little frustrated with how Wilson chooses to conclude his story.
That being said, Fences demands to be seen if for no other than reason than Washington and Davis. They are two of the greatest actors working today and they’re at the top of their game reprising roles that rightfully earned them Tonys for their work in the revival. Now they deserve Oscars.