Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Fences


Directed by Denzel Washington.
2016. Rated PG-13, 139 minutes.
Cast:
Denzel Washington
Viola Davis
Stephen McKinley Henderson
Jovan Adepo
Russell Hornsby
Mykelti Williamson
Saniyya Sidney

Troy (Washington) is a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps type in Pittsburgh, during the mid-1950s, who takes immense pride in getting up every morning and going off to his job as a sanitation worker to provide for his family. That family consists of his loving wife Rose (Davis) and his son Corey (Adepo), a promising high school football player. Not living with Troy is his adult son Lyons (Hornsby), and his brother Gabriel (Williamson). Lyons seems to only come around when he needs money and Gabriel hasn’t been quite right since coming home from the war. After work, Troy likes to unwind by having a drink with his buddy Bono (Henderson) while they swap stories in his backyard, regardless of whether they’re true or not. Rose often comes out to check up on the boys, make sure things don’t get out of hand, and remind Troy he’s supposed to finish building “that fence.” Of course, there’s lots more to life than shootin’ the breeze. There’s a whole life to live. As the people who live it with him can attest, Troy is no bargain of a man.

For those unaware, Fences began as a play by August Wilson, hitting the stage for the first time in 1983. In 1987, it reached Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Stars James Earl Jones and Mary Alice each took home a Tony for Leading Actor and Featured Actress, respectively. In 2010, it won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play with none other than Denzel Washington and Viola Davis winning the same awards Jones and Alice did so many years ago. Like most other plays adapted for the big screen, its roots show through its concentrated scope and heavy reliance on dialogue. It’s clearly a work written for the confined space of a stage. That can be a liability when translated to the limitless playground of film, make things feel static. In this case, it is an asset thriving on intimacy. We really get to know these people, get inside their home and live with them. From the director’s chair, Denzel Washington himself, keeps things closed off enough that we feel the claustrophobia that afflicts these people. These are people keenly aware they are tethered to one another. They cling so fiercely to that binding, they inflict much wear and tear upon it. On the other hand, Washington doesn’t let us suffocate. He seems to know when to pull back just enough for us to get a much needed gulp of air.


We need that air because the Denzel, in front of the camera, and Viola Davis take our breath away. Troy is a man who has had many of his hopes and dreams dashed. He’s broken in many ways, but puts on a brave front for all. Occasionally, he lets his guard down, but only for Rose. He reveals things to Bono, as well, but it’s not the same as the soul baring he does with his wife. This is the first step in making the film work. The next step is how Rose reciprocates. Every conversation with her husband is a sparring match. She deftly spars with him bobbing, weaving, and attacking when the situation dictates. Both express themselves with the type of fire that can only flare up when the combination of pain, fear, shame, expectation, and disappointment create pipe-bursting pressure. It’s the type of thing that takes years to build. What Washington and Davis do is make us feel as if they have truly lived every day of those years leading up to this point. Their relationship has roots stretching deep into the earth. They feel exactly like what they’re portrayed to be, an old married couple, in every sense of the phrase, good and bad. Neither stands above the other, which is why chose to speak about them both within the same paragraph. It is a duel performance, and it is spectacular. One half cannot be separated from the other because, like a couple, one without its counterpart threatens to render itself pointless. I can only entertain the notion of dividing them for the purposes of awards, rankings, and the like. In terms of awards, I don’t yet know if Washington or Davis will win anything noteworthy (correction: Davis has already won a Golden Globe as of the time this post is published), but they would be deserving if they did. Both can certainly rank their work here at, or near the top of the list of their greatest performances. Considering who we’re talking about, that’s saying a bunch.

Our two stars aren’t alone in their excellence. Everyone in the cast puts their best foot forward. Young Jovan Adepo has the next flashiest role as Corey. It’s a bit unfair he has to share most of his scenes with the two leads who are operating on a level above us mere mortals, but he makes the most of it. True, he occasionally seems overwhelmed, but it’s appropriate because Troy clearly has that effect on people. Adepo takes a character that has legitimate motivations and brings them across. He delivers the substance with which the character is written. As Gabriel, veteran Mykelti Williamson gives us someone to sympathize with while we empathize with Troy and Rose. It can occasionally be too reminiscent of the actor’s work as Bubba in Forrest Gump, but it is nonetheless, very good. Saniyya Sidney comes into play later as Raynell and does a nice job providing a cute-factor.

The unsung hero of the cast, however, is Stephen McKinley Henderson as Bono. Like everyone in the cast, except Adepo and Sidney, he is reprising his role from the 2010 Broadway version of the play. I haven’t seen the play performed, so I’m only speculating, but I am willing to bet his work was enhanced by the move to the film. I say this because so much of his acting is done with his face, between his lines. He is present for many of the exchanges between Troy and his family. As such, he is our fly on the wall, absorbing and processing all the information flying around. The looks he gives are priceless and put his thoughts out there in a way we in the audience can pick up on without being told.

I’ve spent lots of time talking about the performances, and with good reason. This is a film built almost entirely on one thing: actors acting. Denzel makes some very nice choices as the director, as noted. His best choice is not intruding on the work of his cast. He never makes the movie about anything other than the raw emotion of the words they are speaking. This cast brings plenty of it. The meaty roles provide a fine foundation, as written. They take those words and breathe three full dimensions into them. In the end, we don’t feel like we’ve watched characters in a movie, but people dealing with life.




Surrender to the Void hasn't written about Fences, just yet, but has reviewed the recent doc...


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14 comments:

  1. I love your line about Denzel just letting the actors do their thing. I want Denzel and Viola to both take home Oscars. Seriously, he's so much better than Casey Affleck is in Manchester by the Sea.

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    1. Haven't seen Manchester, yet, but Affleck had better be phenomenal is he wins over Denzel. Same goes for anyone who beats Davis.

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  2. This movie is going to ruin me, I just know it. It's not out till February here in the UK, but your review has got me so hyped!

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    1. If you're the crying type, take tissue.

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  3. Co-sign on EVERYTHING you say here. This movie is all about the performances, and they are BRILLIANT. Love that you single out Stephen McKinley Henderson, because he's doing such terrific, subtle work as Bono. That scene late in the film at the bar? UGH. He floored me with just the look on his face - it said so much about his character and relationship to Troy. He should be joining Washington and Davis in the awards conversation.

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    1. That bar scene is perfect. He should definitely be getting some awards love.

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  4. I hope to see this yet there's so much to see during this time as I'm not sure if I'll have time to see it though I have yet to see Denzel Washington in a bad performance. Plus, why are they making Viola Davis a Best Supporting Actress when she's really a lead actress? Shenanigans!!!!!

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    1. Putting Davis as supporting, from what I understand, is something she and the producers decided because they think the field isn't as stacked. Denzel has said he disagrees, but understands.

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  5. "What Washington and Davis do is make us feel as if they have truly lived every day of those years leading up to this point." Absolute truth. There was never a doubt in my mind that these two had been to Hell and back together (well, they hadn't quite reached Hell....yet).

    As good as the performances are, is there a scenario that exists where you would watch this film again? I honestly don't think I could bring myself to do it, you know?

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    1. I would, but I understand why you wouldn't. It can be tough sledding.

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  6. I once read the script of Fences and found out that some of Denzel and Viola's monologues are a page long. What makes it interesting is: they deliver it naturally as if it's not an artifical monologue. Those long lines just blend perfectly into the story. Amazing.

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    1. It's a very Shakespearean work in lots of aspects, including those monologues. It's a credit to August Wilson as a writer, and to the cast of the film, they never come off as anything other than natural.

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  7. I've been doing my Best of 2016 for all for acting categories and both Denzel and Viola won theirs. How can they not. Electrifying performances that literally had me entranced. I've seen this twice now and I've rarely been more amazed at actors working. Brilliance.

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    1. Completely with you. They are both drop dead perfect.

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