Fences Review

Posted: January 9, 2017 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

fencesWritten by Daniel Simpson

Hollywood has a surprisingly large history of movie-stars turning into successful directors. It is not surprising that big name actors would be attracted to these roles given they’re already use to having a lot of control and the job promises more, but what is surprising is how many of these transitions are handled successfully. Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, George Clooney, and Ben Affleck are among the most prominent examples of movie-stars who were able to build a reputation has good directors in their own right. Not all of these directors are equal, but all are major talents and it could also be argued that each of the aforementioned are a better director than they are an actor. Denzel Washington is another movie-star who has dabbled in directing, but while his early efforts were considered respectable, neither really broke out as major works. With his newest effort, however, Denzel may have solidified himself as a formidable director. That film is Fences, an intimate drama based on an August Wilson play that has already earned Denzel much acclaim on stage.

Fences is set in 1950s Pittsburgh and focuses on Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) a middle-aged black man working as a garbage collector. Troy is described as once being a highly skilled baseball player, but a combination of racism and Troy’s age kept him from pursuing this as a career. Instead, Troy lives with his second wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Like his father, Cory also has athletic prowess. His talents have led to Cory being selected for a football scholarship, something Troy objects to on the grounds that sports never served Troy well. The two conflict over the issue and the family is beset by other problems brought on by Troy and his choices.

That plot description makes the film seem a fairly straight-forward battle of wills between father and son, though that isn’t strictly accurate. While that story does run-through a bulk of the running time, Fences is more of an episodic piece while the family deals with various issues, many involving other major characters like Troy’s best friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Troy’s brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who was mentally disabled in World War Two. The film very skillfully navigates these subplots, which are all interesting and integrated nicely. It’s also important to note that while this is a very dramatic story, it is not dour or overwhelming. For all the moments of tension, there are also moments of joy and frivolity, most scenes in fact run the gamut between dramatic and playful. That makes for potentially more palatable viewing, but it also makes the story a lot more realistic. Life is made up of peaks and valleys after all and this is a film which presents both.

Complimenting the nuanced story are the characters, who are complex and very well-drawn. At the center is Troy, who at times can be arrogant, condescending, and even frightening, but he’s also a hard-working man with a giant personality and a great sense of joy. What’s more, much of his hard nature derives from lessons he learned in his own life and he is trying to provide for his family the best he can. He’s still prone to selfish action, but he isn’t the simplistic villain he could have been. Crucial to this is Denzel’s performance, who effortlessly brings the charisma and charm which makes Troy likable and also has the chops to pull off the character’s more complex layers and emotional conveyance. Acting opposite Washington is Viola Davis as Troy’s wife, Rose. Much of Davis work in the first half of the film is subtly playing Rose as a loving woman, but also someone strong enough to challenge, and even overcome, Troy. It’s a great performance, one escalated further in the second half when Rose becomes more crucial to the story and Davis’ performance raises the emotional stakes. There’s one scene in particular between Troy and Rose where both characters lay their emotions bare and the acting showcase is among the year’s best.

Both performers are reprising their roles from a 2010 revival of the play and the same can be said for much of the supporting cast. That familiarity certainly helps I’m sure, but the fact is the new actors blend just as well with those who have previously performed the material. That Fences is a stage adaptation is fairly obvious. The cast is limited and the film does have a stage bound feel. Most of the action occurs within Troy and Rose’s home, and within that home the same three locations are used repeatedly. This is however, something the viewer should make peace with early on. As a director, Denzel employs enough visual prowess to remain visually engaging without becoming a distraction. Scenes are blocked effectively and the camera movement does serve the story, but for the most part, Denzel is content to hold back and let the actors and screenplay tell the story.

Will Fences be the film to establish Denzel Washington as a major director? Honestly, I suspect it won’t. The film is very indebted to its stage roots and while Denzel’s direction is skillful and correct for the material, it might be a little too subtle and minimal to really resonate on a grand scale. Regardless, it is the best arguments for Denzel’s talents behind the camera and a fine piece of cinema. The film has something of a multiple endings problem and the final note they close on does strike me as a little hokey, on the whole this is a well-realized work. What it comes down to is the writing and the performances. This is some very well-crafted drama, the characters are wonderfully complex, and the acting is excellent, both from the celebrity leads and the lesser known supporting cast. Fences is the kind of dignified drama we say we want more of.

A-

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