23 January 2017 | svorva
An Adapation that Stands on its Own Merit
I attended Fences with full intention of writing a review. It's a hobby. You can sit down, start a piece, and finish. No one is paying me, I don't slog through a dozen revisions, or listen to an editor. And the reward is there, akin to a conversation with a close friend before even exiting the theater. The best are better and the disasters are suddenly goldmines.
But sometimes the words are dead on the page. Out of habit, I scratch out X00 uninspired words without insight, perspective, or anything that could possibly appeal to anyone. See Fences, draft one. An obviously very good movie that was equally obvious not great. What a spectacular thesis. So I trashed it. Time passes. I allow myself to read some reviews. Every critic compared Fences and source material in a lazy attempt to animate their own lifeless reviews. Excuse the metacriticism, but this mediocrity will not stand.
Fences is originally a Pulitzer Prize winning play. The sixth in playwright August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle," Fences was revived in 2010 starring the same faces in the film, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. It won a fistful on Tonys. I did not know any of this going in, and I shouldn't have to. The film stands on its own.
Fences is a character driven piece with little plot. The universe revolves around patriarch Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), former Negro League star, now garbage man. Troy is an eloquent speaker and captivating storyteller. Good thing, because 90% of the film are his conversations, mostly expressions of deep frustration. Troy's primary salvation is Rose (Viola Davis), a devout, but infinitely strong wife. Together they have a son Cory, who seems to have a promising future in athletics. Troy is wary of such success because of what little professional baseball provided him. Troy forbids Cory's pursuits, an act beyond his son's comprehension that leaves an irreparable rift. Another troubled relationship is between Troy and his eldest son Lyons. Lyons is in his early 30's with a love of music, but without direction. Separated when Lyons was young, Troy outwardly treats Lyon more like a parasite than a son. A final anxiety is Troy's brother Gabriel. Permanently addled by war, the veteran wanders the street with a trumpet waiting for judgement day. Troy acts as caretaker, but it is Gabriel's assistance that payed for the home. Overwhelmed, we learn from friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) that smooth talking Troy is turning to another women for relief.
Seasoned cinephiles can spot adaptations a mile off. Wrought with narration? Fair chance the movie was once a book. Same principal, different guidelines for adaptations of plays. First giveaway, dialogue heavy script. Second, limited locales with action primarily restricted to a single setting. Fences is a prime example of both points. Now these obstructions might bore some audiences, especially those who have never found live drama compelling. Worth mentioning, but the film is still not the play. One essential difference is the camera. In Fences, the camera is quiet, but never static, influencing the viewer in a way that should not be underestimated. A close up cannot be replicated on stage. If little old me knows that, so do the makers of Fences, but they're not resorting to such obvious devices. Critics might have loved an extreme close up or more long takes. In Fences, camera actions exist to highlight the performances. That's what the story calls for. When the takes do get longer, with the perspective slowly spinning around the back yard, that invisible camera dominates your attention. Failing to notice this manipulation is like never seeing strings in a puppet show. The puppet master did their job. Those complaining that Fences never escaped the shadow of the play went to the show hoping to see strings.
Maybe we all missed the opportunity of a lifetime not taking a trip to New York and missing Denzel Washington and Viola Davis act this material live. Can't say, but I was happy to catch them in the movie theater. Chalk it up to nightly rehearsals on Broadway, this pair of performances establishes Fences as one of the best acted films of the year. And Troy Maxson himself, that character is an avatar of an agony beyond race, one that film rarely explores. Fences the film is a success. That should be all I need to say.