Film Review: 'Fences'

(Paramount Pictures)

(Paramount Pictures)


It's uncommon for the big screen version of a stage play retain so much of the look, feel, and je ne sais quoi of the theater. But Fences, adapted from the Tony Award-winning play of the same name, both directed by and starring Denzel Washington, does exactly that and then some. Our leading man's character, as we'll see, is a big baseball aficionado; in this case, Washington hits a home run.

Washington plays Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh-based garbage-man-slash-family-man whose best possible days have already passed him by. Formerly a gifted baseball player, Troy just missed the breaking of the color barrier in baseball, when Jackie Robinson first entered the big leagues. As he litters his language with baseball references and analogies, it's clear how much Troy lets his past keep his clutches on him. He may be resentful, but he has a great attitude about it.

In fact, it's instrumental to how he raises and guides his family -- the biggest component being his orderly and composed wife, Rose (an excellent Viola Davis). As the level-headed voice of reason to her husband's fiery rhetoric, there's a special kind of praise for Davis here, who makes an incredibly strong case for a first Oscar win - her fourth nomination in her career.

It wouldn't be a complete family without the kids, and for Troy, they've already done most of their growing up;.His older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a musician by trade and out living on his own, pays a kind gesture of a visit once in a while. His younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is in high school and living at home, still learning how to juggle all of life's many responsibilities.

(Paramount Pictures)

(Paramount Pictures)

Owing to its theatrical roots, Fences takes place primarily in and around the Maxson family home, a modest house on a modest street in Pittsburgh. We spend much of our time in the backyard, as Troy and co-worker Jim (Stephen Henderson) work on a bottle of liquor together. What the film lacks in environmental variety, it makes up for in writer August Wilson's punchy, jam-packed screenplay - self-adapted from the stage script - where every word is quotable, and everything is something to hang onto. And because we have Washington and Davis as our primary players, the movie becomes a joy to watch, even if their familial struggles - primarily caused by Troy's firm fathering - often turn tense and somber.

While Fences is always set in Troy's present, we never flash back to his past; he instead refers to it incessantly, as a means of passing down his wisdom to his children. It then becomes an interesting case study on just how much of Troy's identity as a father - as a man, really - is wrapped up in what he has already done, instead of the things he has still yet to do. There's a sense that going from a star baseball player to a garbage man might deal a bit of an ego blow to Troy - and that's all owed to Washington's stellar and always interesting acting. 

(Paramount Pictures)

(Paramount Pictures)

But while Washington's coming to terms with his past drives the film, it's Davis who is our emotional core, and she delivers in spades. Her own force of nature in the movie, she is an equal opposite to Washington's steady firmness in his role.

It's no surprise that given its theatrical roots, Fences relies heavily on the strength of its cast and screenplay. Both of them are incredibly strong, nearly eclipsing the movie's tinge of almost sense of claustrophobia as we rarely venture outside and away from the Maxson home, but that's no surprise, either.

It's when the conflicts cut deeper and the skeletons come out - that's when Fences really begins to shine, and when most will be turning on the waterworks.

Rated PG-13. 139 minutes.

Written by August Wilson (stage play and screenplay).

Directed by Denzel Washington.

Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Stephen Henderson.


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