Directed by Denzel Washington
Written by August Wilson
Filmed on Location in Pennsylvania
It was chancy, leaving FENCES for the last review of the 2016 season list. After all, my Academy Award predictions are already locked in up there in “Featured Reviews” and FENCES was adapted by screenwriter August Wilson’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Imagine my relief. I don’t have to scurry back in the wee hours and make changes I hope no one notices. *Whew!*
Overall, I’d say I have Denzel Washington to thank. Oh, he’ll be nominated for Best Actor and Best Director, all right; he just doesn’t deserve to win them. Not this year. Actually, it’s been many years since I’ve seen him in front of the camera in a performance that I thought was strong enough to sweep the field. He certainly hasn’t got a patch on Casey Affleck in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Looking back through his filmography, I have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a film in which I thought he did a creditable acting job. That was MAN ON FIRE and I actually saw that because Dakota Fanning was in it, but he did a good job. That has been a long dry spell though.
What really weakened the film though, was his directing choices. (Barry Jenkins is miles ahead of him on Best Director for MOONLIGHT. For that matter, so is Kenneth Lonergan for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.) People go to the theatre because they want to see the play or musical format on the stage. Some audiences enjoy seeing plays that have been taped live to be shown in theatres; Tyler Perry and Royal Shakespeare Theatre productions have been presented successfully that way. But — and this is important — they are still shown as theatre productions; this FENCES is a film and the crossover is seldom truly successful.
For most of the film, the stage is the Maxson’s backyard (and the fence that *huge spoiler alert* is a bone of contention throughout), which is not a problem. LOCKE, an astonishing film with the unbelievable Tom Hardy, that takes place entirely inside his moving vehicle while he is on his car’s bluetooth phone, never feels claustrophobic or limiting. Then again, Washington is no Hardy. It is Washington’s choice to treat that backyard as his spotlight to deliver the lengthy monologues that are a part of the stage play. They work in the play. They do not work here.
Now, we all know movies are not real life. But for a “teaching” story such as this work on the big screen it must has some semblance of the characters actual behaviour. Instead, for the bulk, and I mean the bulk, of FENCES what you have is Troy holding court and delivering monologues that are lengthy, heartfelt, bitter, intelligent, well-thought-out, right at the boiling point… I think you my point; that shit plays in Shakespeare, but not when you are trying to show the interactions of a family under tremendous stress and just about to explode. No one holds forth like that in reality and you need a touch of reality here, not a chance to work it for an Oscar. You need all those lines in, fine, but break it up and let other people say a couple words. You know, like in real life.
(It may seem a bizarre choice, but do you want to see conversation, real conversation, not stiff dialogue? Look at either of the HORRIBLE BOSSES films. I’m serious. In the scenes with Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day they interrupt each other, talk over each other, and talk about something entirely different. That is how real people talk. It isn’t viable all the time and they don’t use it in every scene, but watch it and see if it doesn’t immediately remind you of family get-together and nights out with the gang.)
What about the plot? Well, I don’t do spoilers, but it is obvious from the trailers that Troy is rather an asshole to his wife Rose and most definitely one to his son Troy. He resents every single day he has to work for his family and thinks he is the only one working and suffering the only who gave up dreams to BE A MAN and be responsible. (Oh, yeah. He’s a real charmer. Part of the backstory is that he was a tremendous hitter in the Negro Leagues. Well, I kept wanting to swing for the fences. *SIGNS reference*) While he has done what he thinks he is supposed to do he has kept his family, especially his son, walking on broken glass. From the start, there are questions as to whether he has been the upright family man he gives such wordy discourse on at every opportunity.
During all of his travails, what of his wife and son? The son he obviously dislikes, the wife he loves (does he?) — he seems to think that they just have been coasting along while he provides for them. (Not that that’s an uncommon misconception…) He firmly believes bringing home the pay envelope entitles him to dictate exactly what goes on in his house, of course. And there’s the claustrophobia I mentioned earlier. It’s not the size of the stage; it’s the amount of freedom in the relationship. If you paid attention during the trailer you can feel exactly how tight the situation is the the Maxson household.
If you can get past the play structure — and it does take some doing, but once the characters move out of the backyard it gets easier — the film is a good recreation of a Wilson’s incredible play. Washington actually hasn’t done anything other than let the action move to more sets. The fact that the action takes places on more than one stage scarcely makes a difference or adds anything of actual value to the film. The value remains in the acting, delivered by many of the same actors who performed the play on Broadway. In addition to Washington and Davis, Russell Hornsby, the incredible Stephen Henderson, and Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s disabled brother, who moved much of the audience to tears with his every appearance on screen.
There you have it. See it before the Academy Awards, of course, because it will be a contender. Will it win? No. Thanks to Washington’s direction and some incredibly strong nominees from other films, it shouldn’t win any of the big ones you force yourself to stay awake to see and then bitch about the next day at work.
If you want to see who I think will win you can check out my choices on the MEviews home page.