VOD film review: Fences
James R | On 17, Jun 2017
Director: Denzel Washington
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson
There’s this long-held idea that a film being too much like a play is a bad thing. The word “stagey” is thrown around to describe underwhelming visuals or a largely unchanging location, lengthy monologues or performances projected to reach the back row of the auditorium. Fences is proof that all of these can be a good thing.
The movie marks Denzel Washington’s directorial debut, but he insists that the creative genius behind the camera is August Wilson, who wrote the play upon which this is based. That respect for the text shines through in every department.
Washington himself plays Troy, a garbage man in 1950s Pittsburgh. But if you listen to him tell it, he’s only doing that because his baseball career didn’t pan out. He was star in his day, but never made the jump to Major League Baseball – by the time they started to accept black athletes, he explains, he was too old. He explains that over and over to anyone who’ll listen, a man bitter enough to hold a grudge and proud enough to tell everyone it doesn’t bother him.
He’s a fascinating complex web of contradictions, and Washington sinks his teeth right in, creating a towering, intimating man of the house, who resents never achieving his dreams, but doesn’t hesitate in squashing those of his sons – the older, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), has a band, but Troy refuses to see him play; the younger, Cory (Jovan Adepo), would be scouted by a football recruiter, if Troy would only let him meet them.
Tolerating him with incredibly patience and similar pride is loyal wife Rose, played with a tough gumption by a steely Viola Davis. She works as hard as he does, her to keep the family running and him to alleviate the guilty of how they got their house – a compensation payment for his brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who fought in WWII.
Washington and Davis make an astonishing lead couple, whether it’s in their affectionate teasing or their heated arguing – and Wilson’s play gives them both a chance to devastate in equal measure. When asked to adapt the text of or the screen, Washington insisted that they perform it on stage first – and so they did, with a Broadway production several years ago. The result is an ensemble of fantastic performances delivered by people who clearly know what they’re doing inside and out.
It’s in allowing those performances to take centre stage that Washington’s skill as a director could easily go unnoticed. With barely any music on the soundtrack, the words themselves become the music to accompany each scene, from the rattling machine-gun exchanges at the fast-paced open, as Troy is happily in control of his life, to the slower exchanges with Gabriel and, later, Rose, as dramatic revelations lead to pregnant pauses and pointed questions.
Washington’s camera picks just the position to capture that rhythm, cutting between the rapid dialogue in the first half, before lingering on reactions in the second – one long shot of Viola Davis’ face as Denzel delivers a lengthy speech is one of the most heartbreaking moments you’ll see on a screen this year. What he crafts is a movie that feels driven by August Wilson’s words in a quietly remarkable way – the play’s static location becomes a strength, as we barely leave the house, leaving us, like Rose, trapped in a domestic prison that is all too easily forgotten in 2017. The brief moments we spend outside are all the more effective, from a timelapse cut that brings perspective to a largely tragic existence to the recurring motif of Troy trying to build a fence in the backyard – a failed effort that increasingly feels poignantly inconsequential. The result is a moving drama fuelled by two powerhouse performances. It’s a play. And in no way is that a bad thing.