17 January 2017 | vonfiedler
A pedigreed treat for stage lovers.
If I hadn't known what Fences was going in, I would have been able to tell before any color hit the screen. In a second before the vibrant world of Fences fades into view, the astute theater-goer will recognize the fast-paced almost narrative cadence of two characters talking as lines written for a stage play. Fences is an adaptation of August Wilson's 1987 play, a part of his Pittsburgh Cycle. It won the Pulitzer Price for Drama in as well as the Tony Award for Best Play, repeating this with the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in 2010.
We're not venturing into mere trivia either, as that revival starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (both taking Tonys for their acting). Not only do both reprise their roles in this film, but Denzel Washington directs. This probably explains why Washington puts in such a theater-like performance. For him, it must have felt like stepping into old shoes with very little desire for change. As I alluded, those accustomed with the stage will recognize and probably even like the kind of performance that at all times demands audience attention, as on stage, you have to do exactly that. In movie form, some might confuse it for scene-chewing, but either way, it gives his character a larger than life affability. As is said in the movie, his ability to fill a house could apply as much to his small house in universe as it could to a theater house. It goes a long way to explaining why in the end, these characters have such a strange respect for a man who is such a heinous character.
If it seems like I'm only praising Washington's performance as relatively good, that might be because he shares the screen with Viola Davis. Davis's performance is not only more suited for film, a medium she has taken by storm lately, but it's also transcendentally fantastic in its own right. In one pivotal scene, Davis's character pours her heart as the actress pours tears and snot down her face. It's not many movies that I can leave and think, boy, we really should have more snot in our films. When it comes to movies, I like to think of myself as an everyman. I approach the Oscars with a sort of double-speak. There's the film that should win (Moana), and there's the film that should win and has a chance (Hell or High Water). In a rare moment of finding these opinions in concert, I could only describe the possibility of Viola Davis not taking home the Best Actress Award with one word: ridiculous.
Denzel Washington certainly doesn't need to feel upstaged. While August Wilson wrote the screenplay himself before passing away in 2005 (a little uncredited work was done on it by Tony Kushner, who settled for a co-producer credit), it's still no small feat to take something designed for the small stage putting it on a film screen. A while the film is still more than a bit obvious, I think Washington really did as much as he could to make it as a good a movie as it could be. There are few real scenes and constant talk, but there's just as much constant motion. Characters walk down a crowded street, transition through the house, come in and off screen organically. It gives a similar effect as if a long scene was done in take. But none of this would matter if it weren't for the impeccable set design. Taking place in the actual Hill District of Pittsburgh that was so important to Wilson's stories, the recreation of the 1950s feels almost too alive. The back alley where the eponymous fence is being built is very reminiscent of the set of Rear Window, perhaps smaller in scale, but feeling no less lived in.
Fences is a film built upon quite a pedigree, but what is it about? I believe that Fences is a story about masculinity. In the film, masculinity provides. It helps you ensure that get what you are owed. But masculinity also takes. Troy Maxson (Washington) is an old man obsessed with what he believes the world owes him. The world owed him glory in sports. The world owed him a better profession. A better standard of living. He even believes that the Grim Reaper owes him life. Even though there are legitimate arguments as to why he never obtains these things, we can still say that they are fair wishes. But as the movie progresses, we see that when he tries to take the things he's owed, he doesn't necessarily think about who he's taking from or what they are owed.
Due to its strict adaptation, Fences is extremely dense in its amount of talking compared to other films. The depth this gives to its characters and sheer literature value certainly goes a long way to cement Fences as one of the smartest films of the season. But I have to be a little self-aware and recognize that as a source of entertainment, Fences probably appealed to me mostly as a man who enjoys the stage. Others might not be as indulgent with it as I am.