James Cole Clay // Film Critic
Denzel Washington’s face is certainly one of the most recognizable persona’s in Hollywood. His sheer bravado is that of legend. He’s a natural born storyteller that also directs films in his spare time like it’s no big deal.
His latest as an actor/director, FENCES — based on the play of the same name by August Wilson — is Washington’s third effort behind the camera, and this time he’s created an acting showcase that’s unlike anything on-screen this year.
While other quite brilliant films such as MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and MOONLIGHT internalize the emotional depth, Washington and his cast including Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo and Mykelti Williamson project the harshness of family life with a ferocious passion that echoes throughout my mind long after the ending credits.
The story focuses on Troy (Washington), a garbage man and his wife of 18 years, Rose (Davis), as they navigate their way through race relations and attempting to mend their marriage in 1950s Pittsburgh. Haunted by what could have been, Troy gets off work every Friday with a $78 check and a sack of potatoes in his left hand and a bottle of gin in the right. He uses everyone around him as a sounding board to wince about the past, showing little hope for the future. Despite Wilson’s words being written over 30 years ago, the thematic struggles of one man’s masculinity are still as prescient today as they were during the 1980s.
He and family friend Bono (Henderson) bark about how difficulties of earning a dollar as a black man (pre-Civil Rights movement, I may add), and providing food for a family. This was a time when men were caged into acting out and running an authoritarian household, aggression ran hot and compassion was devalued. He used the money he makes working on back of the garbage truck as emotional currency to bully Rose and berate his son (from a woman separate from Rose) Lyons (Russell Hornsby) who needs to borrow ten bucks. Troy sees his own thoughts as gospel, projecting his anger on the ones who love him most; he’s truly a nasty man.
Washington as Troy is absolutely astounding. He has ability to raise up any film if he’s firing on all cylinders. He gives Troy the formidable presence that looms over the house with every step that he makes by using fear as a way to communicate love. All the while, Rose sits back and lets the hundreds of tiny emotional cuts Troy has left on her heart scab over until a life-changing event causes their love to be completely infected.
Washington and Davis work in tandem and it’s a wonder that any other actors would have room to breathe with those two taking up so much of the emotional space. All the while, Henderson finds the rhythm of Wilson’s words beautifully spouting wisdom and indulging Troy’s bull at every turn, while Adepo plays Troy’s bitter son Corey – who is trying to run from his father’s shadow.
Nothing is wasted in FENCES, not one word of dialogue, one second of its 138 minute run-time. It’s a tightly wound family drama that looks and feels like a play. In fact, it doesn’t seem like Washington changed much from Wilson’s original script.
Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s photography is decisively (un)cinematic, focusing on close-ups of Washington and Davis’ tear soaked eyes. She showcases the geography of the house in a way that allows the audiences to form a relationship with the kitchen, the back porch and the soggy, old baseball hanging up Troy uses for hitting practice. We’re brought in ever so close to the family dynamic, so much so that the pain vibrates off the screen.
FENCES is anything but a subtle film and it’s obvious early on that Washington is the star of this show with Davis in support, whose cry on cue incites a tepid response rather than the ball of fire ignited by the climax of the film. “Fences” in the family are the hardest to mend, but the power of Wilson’s words and the actions of the remarkable cast make us realize that no matter how isolated our familial dynamics may be. We’re not alone and what’s broken can be repaired, even if the scars are ugly.
FENCES opens in theaters nationwide Dec. 25.