Movie Review – Fences (2016)
There has been a long tradition in Hollywood of taking Broadway plays and adapting them for the silver screen. Obviously, there are the huge musicals like Les Misérables (2012) or Chicago (2002). There are also the smaller productions like Doubt (2008) or On Golden Pond (1981). Yet, one condition of adapting a stage show to the screen is this idea of “opening it up.” A Broadway play is confined to a single stage, but a film isn’t confined. It can go anywhere and be anywhere. A film can show us vistas and landscapes that audiences have to imagine for the most part at a Broadway play.
However, many great adaptations haven’t opened it up. They’ve instead remained confined to one place or a singular space. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) and Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001) as well as Lumet’s Deathtrap (1982) are some thus examples. They were all compelling mysteries or thrillers, adapted from the stage-to-screen, yet stayed limited to one location. When it comes to comparable, family dramas, limited to one location, the family home, two films come to mind. One is A Raisin in the Sun (1961) starring Sidney Poitier, based on Lorraine Hansberry’s play. The other is A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), starring Katherine Hepburn, based on Eugene O’Neill’s play.
As great as one might consider those aforementioned films, this one from actor-director Denzel Washington is one that I would certainly add to that list of great adaptations of Broadway plays. Of course, the play itself, written by August Wilson, won the Pulitzer Prize and won the Tony Award. Comprised mostly of dialogue, the words are impeccable and impressive, and the characterizations are nothing short of incredible.
The performances are vital to conveying those words and those characterizations. There are six actors in the cast and Washington can overshadow them all. He’s very electric, funny and verbose. In fact, the first reel of this movie feels like one, long monologue. Other characters speak, but Washington dominates spinning stories and commentary that are the most entertaining and engaging things you’ll hear on screen this year if ever.
Anytime Washington opens his mouth, his voice drowns out anything else, yet he sucks you into his whirlwind. Washington years ago was in a film called The Hurricane (1999) but in this film he literally is a hurricane, a verbal hurricane, so powerful, so strong and a little intimidating but somehow sexy, even as Washington has put on some pounds here. He’s not his chiseled and buff self. Yes, he’s now 62 years-old, but throughout his career Washington has maintained a peak, muscular form. Here, he plays Troy Maxson, a garbage man who works for the city of Pittsburgh in the 1950’s, so he wouldn’t be ripped. However, he’s still attractive as Hell, but he draws you in with his charm, his personality.
That being said, as much as a juggernaut or as much as a steamroller Washington is, he does, as a director, allow the other five actors their moments to shine and not just once but multiple times. Despite the fact that the whole thing takes place mostly in Troy’s house and mostly downstairs or in the backyard, it never felt boring, slow or all that still. There was such energy and verve to it that even when characters are sitting, there’s still momentum to it.
Essentially, this film is a character study of a very flawed man, yet a good man. Throughout the movie, he has conversation after conversation delving into a myriad of topics and we get his strong opinions about each topic. Some topics are small like which grocery store to shop. Other topics are huge like whether or not he should commit his brother, Gabe, played by Mykelti Williamson, to a psychiatric hospital. Some things he says are shocking like hating Jackie Robinson or his flirtations or dalliances with women who aren’t his wife. Mainly, he tells stories about his life. Some stories feel like outright lies like his wrestling with death. Other stories are heartbreaking like his terrible relationship with his father, which resulted in Troy leaving home at age 14.
Troy has had a tough and hard life and it in many ways has made him tough and hard. He can be incredibly gentle and sweet like when he’s with his wife Rose, played by Viola Davis (How To Get Away with Murder). He can also be really jovial with his best friend Bono, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, the Tony nominee who played the same role in the Broadway revival. Yet, he’s really tough and hard on his two sons, particularly his youngest son.
Russell Hornsby (Lincoln Heights and Grimm) plays Lyons, the eldest son who is 34 years-old and who wasn’t raised by Troy. Lyons is not Rose’s child. He was the son from Troy’s first marriage. Troy is tough on him, especially when it comes to Lyons’ choice to be a musician instead of getting a more stable job. Yet, what’s great about Washington’s direction is that he gives all his characters moments to shine and it starts with Lyons whose first monologue stops Troy dead in his tracks or rather derails him. It’s a great moment that Hornsby absolutely nails.
Jovan Adepo (The Leftovers) plays Cory, the youngest son who’s probably only 17. He is Rose’s child, and as such he gets the brunt of Troy’s tough love. Troy is strict and controlling. Cory takes it, but it’s like a boiling pot. He tries to push back in various ways but Troy always slaps him down verbally. Cory is on the short end of Troy’s oppressive fathering. The key issue is over Cory wanting to play sports, particularly football. Troy won’t let him or only under difficult rules that Cory has to work. Cory wants to focus on his sports though.
Troy isn’t unreasonable, but he’s stubborn as Hell and won’t budge on anything. Rose can occasionally talk him down. However, it can seem like Troy is going too far in his intransigence. He’s very smart and convincing, but it’s a form of fatherhood that one could question. The film seems to grapple with the debate of if Troy’s form of fatherhood is a good thing or a bad thing, and it dares us to deal with this character and either love him or hate him.
It’s a knockout. It’s refreshing to dive into this pool and live with these people and feel the strong emotions swirling around. It’s not just a gut punch. It’s just constant hits, solid hit after solid hit, and the entire cast delivers it superbly. It’s one of the best films of the year.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 18 mins.