REVIEW: “Fences”

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I love many things about movies, but perhaps nothing more than watching great actors and actresses ply their trade. And when top-tier performers are given meaty, robust material to work with, the results are often spellbinding. A prime example – Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the riveting family drama “Fences”.

The film is based on the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. The play was revived on Broadway in 2010 starring both Washington and Davis. Both would win Tony Awards for their performances. Although Wilson had penned a screenplay, his insistence on an African-American director left a film adaptation in limbo. Washington’s stage experience with the story inspired him to star in and direct the film version (his third time in the director’s chair).

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“Fences” begins in 1957 Pittsburgh and tells the story of the Maxson family. Troy (Washington) works on a garbage truck with his life-long friend Bono (played by Stephen Henderson who, along with many other cast members, also starred in the Broadway revival). Troy is a particularly prickly character. He’s a man bruised by his past and bitter from racial inequalities both realistic and imagined. His wife Rose (Davis) is the anchor of their relationship. She’s a soothing presence, a voice of reason, and often times a peacemaker between Troy and their teenage son Corey (Jovan Adepo).

Washington doesn’t shy away from the story’s stage roots. The film feels very much like a play. It’s thick with dialogue and the vast majority of it takes place at the Maxson’s home. That may push away those hungry for something more traditional, but Washington knows the richness of his material. He doesn’t force any kind of cinematic gimmickry. Instead the performers (Washington included) take the ball and run which is the only way this story should be told.

We the audience get most of our information by listening in on the many lengthy conversations between characters – conversations filled with feelings, observations, or reflection. It’s here we see the many complex sides of Troy. Whether he’s playfully spinning a wild tale about wrestling with the Grim Reaper or reminiscing about his days playing baseball in the Negro Leagues. Other times it’s Troy, the strict, tough-minded father more interested in “doing right” by his children than loving them. As wordy as they sometimes are, every conversation is rich with meaning and substance. They are always shedding another layer to these characters.

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The further the story goes the more darker and painful it becomes. In one particularly tragic scene, Troy’s consuming bitterness and stubbornness drive him to exclaim “I can’t give nothing else.” At the same time there is a level of sympathy as Troy is a scarred product of his past. At one point he laments to his wife “You’re the only decent thing that’s ever happened to me.” And the story subtly looks at the cyclical nature of life. The question is will Troy be the one to finally break the cycle?

“Fences” is lively and vibrant yet aching and tragic. The cast’s rapport carries over beautifully from stage to screen and their handling of August Wilson’s characters comes from an understanding far deeper that simple familiarity. Washington and Davis let it rip and should be getting a call from Oscar, but the supporting cast is just as vital. Henderson, Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson – all essential pieces to the telling of Wilson’s story. In the end, it’s this rhythmic force of dialogue and performance that makes “Fences” such a powerful and soul-piercing experience.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

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27 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Fences”

  1. Great review, Keith! I’m seeing this one tonight. I have some slight worries that it might be Oscar-bait, but your review gives me reassurance that it isn’t. Plus, it’s hard to go wrong with Denzel Washington!

    • Thanks man. I think a lot of good films get unfairly dismissed as ‘Oscar bait’ (not saying you are doing that). I always think of The Artist. It was dismissed by many as Oscar bait when actually it an audacious bit of filmmaking. Fences is sure to get some Oscar nods but it deserves it. I think you’ll be pleased. Let me know what you think.

  2. I at first couldn’t decide if I liked the fact that I had just paid to watch a play on a movie screen, but now I have to say it was everything it needed to be. I was overwhelmed with the amount of talking at first . . . and darn those trailers, because that one bit where Denzel is ripping into his son about “not liking him” seemed to get lost in a sea of dialogue and didn’t have quite the impact I was expecting it to — but this was a really powerful film. I dug it. Denzel and Viola completely stunned me. And Troy’s brother was heartbreaking.

    All that said, I’m still not sure about that ending.

    • I’m really fine with the film maintaining its stage roots as long as the characters and dialogue are this rich. The scene with his son really hit hard for me. It may be because I had only watched one teaser. I did go back and watch the trailers later and was a bit surprised at how much they give away. Glad I steered clear.

      As for the ending, I was fine with the ending itself even though the final shot was a bit much and I’m not certain it was totally earned. Still I was absolutely captivated by Fences.

      • You have a good point about the quality of the material and characters. That is what kept me hooked throughout as well. These performances were ful-bodied and completely natural. I would LOVE to see this on stage!

      • Oh man, can you imagine? And especially with this cast. It would be well worth the ticket price. You really can sense the cast’s familiarity but also bond with these characters. Watching it live would be exhilarating.

      • Something that I’d be keen on doing is to introduce play reviews. I’m so desperate to see something live. This would have been a great one to start with; problem is, I’m only 6 years late!

      • That would be a great addition. For me the problem is location. Just don’t have access to high caliber stage productions. Go figure.

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    • It sure it. It has really stuck with me since seeing it last week. I really hope to see it again before it leaves theaters. Washington and Davis are performing at a whole different level. Pure brilliance.

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