‘Fences’ Encloses Two Hours of Intense Family Drama
Fences may very well be the most difficult film to adapt in 2016. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name, Fences does the bare minimum to hide its roots on stage. For actor-director Denzel Washington, it’s a massive gamble translating a beloved stage play blow-by-blow to the big screen.
Set in the 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences follows Washington’s Troy Maxson and his extended family. From the start, we get this sense that this is a deeply flawed individual. A disappointment on the baseball circuit and ex-con of 15 years, Troy has built a new life as a commanding patriarch. It doesn’t matter whether it’s with his wife (Viola Davis), his two sons (Russell Hornsby and Jovan Adepo) or his mentally-challenged younger brother (Mykelti Williamson), there’s this perpetual aura of control he has over them.
Having seen the harsh realities of the world, we understand where Troy is coming from. When his elder son wants to borrow ten dollars, he makes a major fuss about it, He doesn’t have faith in his son’s trivial dreams as a musician earning pennies. Rather he believes in a more stable manner of self-dependence. Troy treats his other son even worse, crushing his dreams to become a college football player. Plagued by memories of race issues in his prime, he’s slams the hammer down on the entire situation. There’s a reasoning behind everything, even if he’s not the most likable person. As the film progresses, metaphors begins to take hold, particularly the uneasy relationship with death and what a fence truly means to his character.
Fences is clearly a passion project for Washington, who’s doing double duty as lead and director. In fact, Washington himself played Maxson in the 2010 revival and brought most of the play’s cast to the big screen including Viola Davis. But in the translation, there’s too much of a desire to recreate the play blow by blow. Stage plays and film are two completely separate mediums. Though sometimes it calls for the constraints of translation to be loosened up.
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At 139 minutes, audiences will feel the run time of Fences, despite a deep investment in the ensemble’s turmoils. Claustrophobic to a fault, the film predominantly revolves around the Maxson home. Washington might deviate from the old homestead here and there, but there’s a clear fixation on one location. As expected from a stage play, scenes can continue for long periods of time as various characters delve into monologues and an enormous amount of exposition.
Fences requires much from its audience, who come to expect traditional cinematic storytelling. But to stick with the film is genuinely rewarding thanks to a stellar cast and rich character studies. No pun intended, but Washington knocks it out of the park as both actor and director. Over the years he’s built up a reputation to explore flawed characters. From Alonzo Harris in Training Day to Whip Whitaker in Flight, Washington utterly nails these types of characters. As Troy Maxson, Washington dominates in what is his best performance since winning the Oscar for Training Day.
Viola Davis is equally impressive as his dutiful wife, Rose. With the right role, she too can hit a home run that rivals her performances in Doubt and The Help. Her character’s been through hell and back with Troy. Considering everything that she’s had to endure, it’s a surprise how strong she remains throughout the film. As we see their marriage on the rocks, one can’t help and nudge her to escape the situation.
With much inside baseball and passion in play, Denzel Washington provides a triumphant insight to the highly-successful August Wilson stage play. In fact, Fences is his finest display of craftsmanship behind the camera. He seems to know these characters rather intimately, bringing the best of the source material to the big screen. It’s just with the best that you’re also getting the entire kitchen sink to boot.