Directed by Denzel Washington.
2016. Rated PG-13, 139 minutes.
Stephen McKinley Henderson
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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