Film Review – Fences (Second Take)
There are films where the mastery of craft reveals itself subtly. Other times, the brilliance kicks the door down and makes its presence known loud and clear. Fences (2016) contains such powerful acting that we recognize it moments into the story. Denzel Washington directs August Wilson’s screenplay (adapted from Wilson’s critically acclaimed play) with intense consideration for the performers. This is what you would call a “filmed play.” We rarely leave a single location, and the action is centered on the dialogue. But through the near two and half hour runtime, we’re riveted with what will happen next. Wilson’s words and Washington’s direction cut to the emotional core like a sharpened knife.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are two national treasures, and they bring such amazing gravitas to their roles that we can’t keep our eyes off of them. They play married couple Troy and Rose. Troy is a garbage man, struggling to provide for his wife and family. Rose is a housewife, doing her best to maintain a level of warmth and love in their home. Washington and Davis both played these roles on the stage, and that experience shines through on screen. They feel lived in with their characters, there’s an unspoken history in how they move, talk, and touch each other. Some of the funnier exchanges happen when Troy recalls some outlandish memory and Rose immediately corrects him with the truth.
Troy and Rose both grew up during difficult times. The story takes place in the 1950s, when segregation lines were in full effect. They both had little income, but the burden of life took a major toll on Troy. He was once a promising baseball player in the Negro Leagues, but his dreams of superstardom never manifested. Poverty, a broken childhood, and the responsibility of raising his own children hardened Troy into a harsh, bitter old man.
In Troy, Washington has given one of his finest performances. He fills the character with a wealth of contradictions. At one moment, Troy can be the charismatic, funny charmer that wooed his wife. The next, he’ll be bursting with self-loathing, complaining about money or the disrespect he gets from everyone around him. He does what he can to survive but hates the life he lives in. Troy blames himself for his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), whose wartime injury left him permanently handicapped. Washington allows us to see Troy warts and all. The handsome good looks of youth have disappeared, leaving an overweight alcoholic who stupidly wishes he could go back to the good old days.
Viola Davis doesn’t have the kind of splashy character in Rose as Washington does in Troy. However, Davis might have given the better performance because she does so much more with less to work with. Rose is the pillar of strength in the household. When Troy reveals his weaknesses (and boy does he!) Rose counters with such refusal to give up that it’s almost bewildering. Yes, there is the key scene where Davis goes for the big emotional gestures, but it was the little things that show how good she really is. The smallest glance, the way she expresses her exhaustion without any words. Davis has the ability to break our hearts without even trying – we feel the pain she goes through. She balances the entire film, without her Troy could have been a raving sideshow.
Much of the tension revolves around Troy relationships with his sons Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo). Lyons is a talented musician, and Cory has received offers to play football in college. But instead of being proud of his boys, Troy responds with little compassion, arguing that what they’re doing is a waste of time. It’s a strange contrast: Troy constantly talks about how he breaks his back everyday to provide food and shelter to his family, but doesn’t support his boys doing what they want. Maybe his reaction is a remnant of his failures with baseball and the racism he experienced. Troy thinks that not matter what you do, the racist world will always find a way to beat you down. What he really sees in Lyons and Cory are younger versions of himself, and the tragedy of that is his fear that they’ll end up like him. One of the greatest gifts the older generations can give the new is the wisdom of experience. But how far can that go if the experience is filled with nothing but hate and regret?
If there are any missteps here, it’s in how much Washington keeps in. Some monologues run a bit too long – Washington will linger on a scene after the emotional impact has been made. When Rose walks away from Troy after a heated argument, Washington will keep the camera stuck on Troy hollering even after Rose has long left the scene. But those are little quibbles compared to how good Washington’s execution is. He doesn’t clog up the screen with overly dramatic camera shots or exaggerated angles. The cinematography (Charlotte Bruus Christensen) is compact, economical. The camera often sits in place, allowing the actors to do what they do best. Many of the biggest scenes take place in the family’s backyard, but Washington never repeats himself when we go back there. Every scene has an identity of its own, and each fit together in perfect working order.
The performances in Fences are so emotionally raw that we walk out feeling a sense of exhaustion. These are stars that give everything they have, and seeing them go all out with such laser precision is awe-inspiring. For anyone that wants a master class in acting expertise, this is the place to go.