Denzel Washington directs and stars in the theatrical adaptation of Fences, August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play. As with any adaptation, the question must be asked: Is there anything here to separate it from its previous medium? Yes and no. Fences is loyal to the style of the play in that characters carry long passages of dialogue and mostly occupy a single set for the entire movie. But if a movie is going to feel like a play, it may as well be a superbly well-cast play. And you can’t do much better than Oscar contenders Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.
Washington perfectly plays the Fences’ working class Troy, a father of the 1950s that makes just enough money to support his family in their modest Pittsburg home, but content enough to enjoy his life. He skips home from his job of a garbage collector with his pay in an envelope, a smile on his face and a burning desire to jump in bed with his wife.
It’s impossible to take your eyes off such a character the way he casually spins yarns, jokes with honesty and take a serious tone to more crucial issues. He could carry on a conversation for hours on everything from baseball to money to death itself. Most of those listening to his stories can do little more than smirk and shake their heads as he carries on with his musings and rants.
The only one who can put a halt with logic to Troy’s talking is his wife Rose, played by Viola Davis with the right amount of power, sincerity and desperation. She’s smart enough to know when Troy is weaving tall tales to impress his friends, but sweet enough to appreciate his enthusiasm.
Whereas Washington is a constant force of words, Davis chooses her’s wisely and doles out a heaping helping of force when provoked. Even when pushed with her back to the wall and offered an easy out to sever the life she wants to escape from, she faces it with a calm fury all her own that makes her both a powerful woman and a caring mother.
Washington’s direction maintains a faithfulness to the play by keeping nearly the entire picture encapsulated around the Maxson home. Troy ambles into the backyard after work to chat up a storm among beers, later moving the conversation into his living room before supper is served in the dining room. These settings could become tiresome in their repetition, but the passage of time and significance of the house makes the setting almost another character.
A tetherball hangs in the backyard, a constant reminder to Troy of his past days as a baseball player and the future of death awaiting him. Fences never veers off course from the direction of a play as it wants to feature its leads front and center. There isn’t much to be distracted by, leaving Washington’s ramblings and Davis’ tearful rage holding the eyes indefinitely.
There are plenty of heavy themes to tackle in these two hours, but Washington handles each one scene by scene and with great care. Troy is able to transition from playfully explaining to his son why they can’t buy a television to bitterly refusing his son’s favoring of football practice over a part-time job.
Troy’s reveal of an affair could have made for a bad soap opera moment, but it’s presented beautifully as a moment of ugly realization and seething regret. And the manner in which these characters come to terms with their past demons as the afterlife seems to loom over their backyard is a nice touch. Only Washington could take a scene where Troy shouts at death to stay away from his house and make it both sad and intense.
There is a moral questioning throughout of Troy’s character as he sinks lower and lower into his hole of bad decisions. He’s already haunted as he feels guilty for taking advantage of his brain-damaged war buddy for the house he was able to afford. He constantly talks with a self-important attitude, almost as if he’s worried that if he stops speaking death will come for him.
Life has passed him by so much that he finds himself drowning in baseball analogies and desperately seeking something more out of life. Even after all the horrible things he has done to his family, Rose still sticks it out as the better woman that won’t be pushed aside. It’s difficult drama, but still meaningful and profound for approaching such subjects in an era when they were more than a little taboo.
Fences is an outstanding script adaptation of the play, but elevated to a much higher level thanks to the astounding talents of Washington and Davis. They’re almost too good for this movie as they take solid roles for a play and knock them out of the park. There’s a somber honesty to this picture that paints real characters into its suburban setting and forces the audience to not only become absorbed in their world, but peer inside their pasts and philosophies. Simple folk are not so simple, at least when they’re being played by such top-talent actors.