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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Review: Fences (2016)

* * *

Director: Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis

Fences is a great collection of performances. I'm not sure that it's great cinema, per se - in fact it's so aggressively anti-cinematic and so tightly tied to its theater origins that director/star Denzel Washington might as well have just filmed it on a stage a la Dogville. To be fair to Washington, even if he had found a way to open things out a bit more and take advantage of the scope that film is able to capture that theater simply cannot, the sheer talkiness of the screenplay (which playwright August Wilson adapted himself) would set Fences apart from most of what's at the cineplex. Fences unfolds as a glorious hurricane of words that help some truly great performances (Washington and Viola Davis are the stars and are as excellent as you would imagine, but there is no weak performance anywhere to be found) take flight. Watching these actors on screen is a captivating experience. I'm just not entirely sure it's a "movie."

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences is the story of a man, his conception of himself, and his marriage. The man is Troy (Washington), a garbage collector who once aspired to be a baseball player. He lives with his wife, Rose (Davis) and their teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), and until recently his brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), whose government payout from a head injury sustained while fighting in WWII allowed Troy to buy the house. As the story opens, Gabe has recently moved out and started renting a suite elsewhere in the neighborhood, though he is a frequent visitor, as is Troy's friend and coworker Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Troy's other son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), an aspiring musician who to Troy's amusement and annoyance (in about equal parts) always manages to turn up on Troy's payday. Though Troy and Rose have created a generally happy life together, there are tensions in the house. At work, Troy has spoken out about the fact that only white men are ever promoted from lifters to drivers, and though he puts on a show of being unconcerned, he's actually as worried as Rose and Bono that he might lose his job because of it. At home, conflicts have arisen between Troy and Cory, centered largely around Cory's desire to pursue a college education on a football scholarship. His own experiences as an athlete having left him convinced that the white establishment will reject Cory's talent, Troy first discourages and then actively tries to sabotage Cory's dream. While Rose spends the first part of the story trying to run interference between Troy and his sons, a bombshell that Troy drops in the middle of the story transforms the tensions in the house (and its combatants) entirely.

There are a few different ways that you might describe Fences. It's the story of a marriage, to be sure, and how its foundations are tested when the husband has a midlife crisis, looks back on what he's accomplished in his life, and decides that it's somehow lacking. In many respects, this part of the story is the most compelling, largely because of those powerhouse performances by Washington and Davis, who meet each other note for note and are able to give a real sense of the history between the characters. As played by Washington and Davis, there is genuine texture to this relationship, and the pain of both characters over what has happened and what will happen is palpable. You feel for both characters - Troy for his difficulty accepting "enough" as enough, wondering why he can't have more than just enough the way that some other people do, unable to accept that he's done all he's going to do in life and that what he's got will be it, who ends up burning his life to the ground just to recapture some feeling of youth and possibility; and Rose because she's given everything to this relationship, been everything that society expects a wife to be, accepted what Troy can give her as all she's going to get, and gets a figurative slap in the face for it. You could pick virtually any scene between Washington and Davis here and make a solid case for it being one of the best film scenes of any year.

Fences is also the story of a man and his sons, fraught, complicated, and explosive. Troy is hard on both Lyons and Cory, seeing in them the paths he himself couldn't take, and probably seeing in himself and the way that he interacts with them the things that he hated in his own father. Lyons and Cory both have aspirations, one to be a musician and the other to be an athlete, and Troy simply cannot bring himself to be supportive, encouraging them to give up, stop dreaming, and get "real" jobs. On the one hand, this is because Troy sees himself as having been a victim of the system, an athlete who could have been a Major League Baseball player but for the color barrier that relegated him to the Negro League, and he doesn't want to see his sons' dreams crushed by the system (though the actual extent to which Troy was the victim of racial politics is in question, as Rose herself points out that it was likely his age that kept him out of the Major League). On the other hand, Troy is clearly jealous of his sons and their potential to do something that they love rather than something which will merely allow them to get by. The fact that he himself is so dissatisfied by his job should be reason enough for him to encourage his sons to follow their passions, but Troy's unhappiness has so curdled into resentment that he can't do that. If he couldn't do what he wanted to, then why should his sons? Even though he wants better for them (which is why he settled down and took an honest job, giving up the life of crime that resulted in him spending much of his youth in prison), he can't stand the thought that they should have something that he himself will never be able to have.

Finally, Fences is the story of a man being eaten alive by guilt. Troy's guilt comes in many forms: for not having had a real hand in raising Lyons, who grew up while Troy was in prison; for the act that brings his marriage to Rose to the brink; for not being able to be better than his own father, whom he describes himself as having feared until one day discovering that the man was nothing to be afraid of, at which point he felt nothing for him, and whose parenting he's emulating which means that he has to keep pushing and intimidating his sons because the moment they stop fearing him, they will turn away and lose all emotional ties to him; and for the fact that what he has, which he believes to be lacking, was not earned but borrowed. By his own admission, he owes the fact that he was able to purchase the house to Gabe's misfortune and that knowledge has been gnawing away at him ever since, though that doesn't stop him from (potentially) exploiting Gabe for his own financial gain later on. Fences is the anguished portrait of a man who isn't satisfied with what he has, yet feels that he hasn't quite earned having that much in the first place.

I said at the top that Fences isn't cinematic, and it's not. A lot of play to film adaptations are accused of being unable to shake their inherent "staginess" and that is particularly true of Fences, which so reveres its theatrical origins that the change of medium is merely superficial instead of being used to provide an opportunity to bring new dimension and perspective to the material. In the end, that may not matter. Washington, Davis, Williamson, Adepo, Hornsby, and Henderson are all wonderful, so much so that the only thing preventing Fences from taking every Best Ensemble award is the fact that 2016 was a really remarkable year for film ensembles. Washington and Davis will receive Oscar nominations for sure (and Davis winning as Best Supporting Actress may be the closest to a sure thing this year), but you could make a case for any of the supporting actors getting a nomination as each brings something vital and alive to the film. As a piece of filmmaking Fences may be little more than a camera directed at a stage play, but it's an absolute masterclass in acting.

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