Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review: Fences

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Denzel Washington's filmed adaptation of August Wilson's 1983 play is a tour de force of acting and an overall very good translation of the Pittsburgh playwright's (arguably) most famous work. In the film, Washington plays Troy Maxson, a garbageman who was once a promising baseball player, but never made it, and now lives out his years having backyard conversations with his wife Rose (a very good Viola Davis) and pal Bono (Stephen Henderson), a former fellow convict who now works alongside him as a sanitation worker.

When not engaging in conversations behind his house with Rose and Bono on everything from baseball to death, Troy is haranguing his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), an aspiring football player whom he does not want to become disappointed after being let down by the world of sports as he once was. In fact, Troy goes a few steps beyond discouraging his son, which leads to conflict as the two increasingly see eye to eye less and less. Also in Troy's orbit are an older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), from a previous wife and a brother (Mykelti Williamson) who has been left shell shocked after World War II.

Washington, who previously directed "Antwone Fisher," shows once again that he has talent both in front of and behind the camera. But if there's anything that holds "Fences" back, albeit just slightly, it's that it is often too obvious that the movie is an adaptation of a play. In other words, most of the action is set within a small, confined space and much of the dialogue is in the form of monologue. At times, the picture feels like a filmed play.

That being said, it's a terrific showcase for its cast, who more than does justice to Wilson's poetic words. Washington, always great, does a terrific job of creating a character who can be both sympathetic and a bit of a cretin within the same scene. And Davis is spellbinding as Rose, especially during a particularly grueling scene in which she finds out one of her husband's secrets and responds accordingly. Troy may have the greater capacity to hurt others, but when Rose tells him he's a "womanless man," he looks absolutely punched in the gut.

Although Troy and Rose are the film's two lead characters, it's ultimately Cory who becomes the most significant character, especially during two final scenes, one a confrontation and the other a return home.

"Fences" is about many things, one of which is how no matter how hard parents try to help their children, they end up hindering them by passing on their bad traits along with the good ones. Cory seems to recognize this during the film's finale when he joins a duet with a younger sibling of a song Troy used to sing. This is a powerful film with a great cast that makes Wilson's beloved play come to life onscreen.

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