The powerful family drama of ‘Fences’
Nicholas Ottone | Tuesday, April 25, 2017
The central thematic inquiries of Denzel Washington’s cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s play “Fences” — which the Student Union Board (SUB) screened last weekend — are questions of vulnerability, loyalty and family, reaching melodramatic heights as Wilson’s writing soars in concert with the pitch-perfect cast’s performances. The stripped-down cinematic style harkens back to old-fashioned, dialogue-driven kitchen-sink dramas, which elevated the working class’ lives to that of larger-than-life American myths. “Fences” is undeniably a sturdily constructed, magnificently written and well-acted film. So why does it always feel slightly out of reach?
“Fences” chronicles the lives of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), his wife Rose (Viola Davis, in an Oscar-winning turn) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) as they struggle with poverty, Cory’s burgeoning football career and fractures in Troy and Rose’s marriage. Troy’s friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) and his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) reveal complexities hidden from his family — a softer, lonelier dimension he attempts to hide behind layers of masculinity and alcoholism.
Before the film even fades in, Troy rarely ceases talking, pontificating on every subject at length and seizing the spotlight at every opportunity. Washington gives a gigantic performance for a larger-than-life character, an indelibly unsubtle turn that constantly toes the line of being over-the-top before reminding the audience of the deep wells of emotions hidden behind Troy’s carefully constructed facade of masculinity. Davis earns every accolade with two breathtaking monologues yet invests even the sparse silences with Rose’s quiet determination. As Troy’s son Cory, Adepo is perhaps the film’s true revelation, grounding the film’s towering performances and melodrama — all its conflict and swirling chaos — in a performance that evokes both sympathy and empathy, drawing the audience ever so slightly into Wilson’s and Washington’s world.
Ultimately, however, this empathy does not prove enough. Wilson adapted his own play for the screen, but the film often seems constrained by its theatrical predecessor. Action rarely takes place outside of the Maxson home, and wall-to-wall speeches fill the film from beginning to end. While these factors most likely lend assistance to theatrical productions, they doom the film. Washington’s direction, especially in the first half, feels overwhelmingly staid, placing actors in wide shots with large amounts of dead space between them. The visual aesthetic of the film is clean, but the individual shots seem composed not to evoke meaning, but instead to simply capture the back-and-forth conversations. Perhaps this directorial choice is intentional, allowing Wilson’s words to stand by themselves, but this style disregards a central tenet of cinema, visually evoking themes expressed through dialogue and action.
In addition, the staged feel lends the film an uncomfortable distance from the audience. Again, this effect might be intentional, as Troy himself builds fences to separate himself from those closest to him. But it leaves the audience without a clear and powerful source of investment until halfway through the film, leaving the first half to character development and world building. There is no doubt that the first half is important; but without interesting directorial touches or other cinematic flourishes that enhance the story, there is no clear reason for Washington’s translation for the silver screen.
When Troy talks about building a fence, his friend Bono comments, “Some people build fences to keep people out … and other people build fences to keep people in.” “Fences” brings a fascinating story to life, but instead of building fences to draw the audience in, these very same devices keep the audience out. With towering performances and powerful writing, “Fences” is by all accounts good — but I’m not sure it’s truly great.
Director: Denzel Washington
Starring: Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo
Shamrocks: 3 out of 5