Wednesday, January 11, 2017



For a movie as pedigreed and noble as Fences, it's an awfully talky and ultimately muddled film that discovers, uncomfortably, what a wide gulf there is between what affects us on stage and what moves us on screen.

It's based on August Wilson's play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and whatever it was that worked so well when performed live does not have the same impact when filmed for an audience.  Filled with long, florid monologues and grand themes of morals and ethics, Fences is admirable in every possible way, just not particularly compelling.

It takes place almost entirely within the backyard and two of the rooms of the Philadelphia home of Troy Maxson, mostly in 1957.  Anchored by two remarkable performances by Denzel Washington (who also directs) and Viola Davis, Fences seethes with anger for forgotten people -- not just for African-Americans, but for everyone like Troy, who has worked so hard to accomplish so little that he's become bitter at how much he was not allowed to do.

For that reason, Fences should feel uncommonly timely despite its setting of 60 years ago, but Washington is working with a script that Wilson finished in 2005, before he died, and seems almost afraid to interpret the words and actions further.

Troy works hard as a garbage man to support his second wife, Rose, and their high-school-aged son, Cory, and they don't live flamboyantly.  Largely due to her careful management of the house, they life reasonably well, though, despite having much turmoil under a peaceful surface.  Troy has an older son from his first marriage, and was able to buy the house not because of his meager salary but because his mentally disabled brother Gabe was badly injured in World War II and received a small payout from the government.

But Troy has another shame, too, one that will test the limits of his wife's saintlike patience and break open the chasm that looms between him and his son.  As he ruminates on his life and what he has been denied, Troy reminisces about his almost-career as a baseball player.  Troy believes prejudice, not skill, prevented him from playing.

Over and over, he reflects on baseball, and some of his dialogue could be the work of Terrence Mann from Field of Dreams -- baseball is metaphor, a life lesson, a dream and an unkept promise all in one, and if it sounded over the top when James Earl Jones said it, it's that much more labored here.  (It's no surprise that Jones himself played Troy in the original Broadway production in 1987, while Dreams was released two years later.)

Despite the enormous work of its cast and director, Fences remains as fixed to its limited world as the baseball that Troy hangs from a tree in the yard.  There are occasional efforts to open up the action, but they seem half-hearted and timid -- this is a play through and through.

It's also a movie that asks a lot of the audience; it is defiantly unwilling to present Troy in a sympathetic light, and spends almost all of its time in the realm of metaphor, unwilling to say quite exactly what it means.  It's meant to spark post-show conversation, perhaps, but comes across as wavering and unresolved.  Is Troy a good man who went bad?  Is his life to blame, are his problems truly caused by circumstance -- or does his pivotal act and revelation prove that he is unrelievedly selfish and cowardly? Fences doesn't want to tell us, and Washington doesn't want to offer any sort of interpretation, which is exactly what it would have needed to to transcend its roots.

What Fences does have is a strong central performance by Washington; intense, internalized, he projects a combination of fierce strength and utter disillusionment.  He's affecting.  Even better is Viola Davis in one of the year's most compelling performances.  She isn't long-suffering, she is proud to be who she is, she is confident and resilient, and she understands the significance of her own modest achievements.  When the rug is pulled out from under her in the key scene of Fences, it's clear that Davis has found the soul of the character.  She's the reason to see Fences, and she's almost enough.

It's a frustrating movie, one that contains much to like -- but not quite enough.  The ambiguity at its core has made the play into a classic, but it's the very thing that keeps the film swinging, but not quite making, the Fences of its title.

Viewed Jan. 8, 2016 -- DVD


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