March 14, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: FENCES

Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Sahiyya Sidney. Directed byy Denzel Washington. (139 min, 2016).

Troy Maxson is quite a character. 

He's harsh and abrasive. Though he may mean well, he's verbally abusive to his sons, belittling their loftier goals in life, perhaps because his own life decisions made it impossible to achieve his. He boasts about himself at every given opportunity, yet remains angry at the cards life dealt him. He's proud of everything he's worked hard for, but still resentful of those he perceives have held him back. While we never doubt his love for Rose, Troy's dutiful wife of 18 years, he commits the ultimate betrayal by keeping a mistress who ends up pregnant with his child. He drinks too much, is closed-minded, always convinced he's in the right and insists on dominating every conversation and argument he's part of.

Whether by his own doing or simply his circumstances, Troy is often a pretty terrible person, but what makes him fascinating is he genuinely doesn't think he is. Of course, the best villains were always those who don't see themselves as truly villainous. I hesitate to label Troy a villain in the purest sense, since the character's views and attitude are the driving narrative force behind Fences. After all, we've all known someone like Troy Maxson.

Someone had garlic for lunch.
He's played with almost manic gusto by Denzel Washington (who also directed), and like his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day, it's one of those performances where we forget we're watching Denzel, the Movie Star. What we see instead is a domineering, embittered man who's unwilling - or unable - to tear down the fence he's built around himself - of course, the title is a metaphor, as is the one he takes years to build in his back yard. The further he progresses on its construction, the more alienated he becomes from everyone close to him.

Washington's performance alone makes Fences worth seeing, but Viola Davis as Rose is every bit his equal (and certainly deserving of her Best Actress Oscar). Assertive yet vulnerable, Rose is strong enough to advocate for her sons when Troy is tearing them down. As someone whose love and dedication to her husband is put to the ultimate test, Rose is a better wife than he probably deserves. We suspect she knows it, too, but would never betray the sanctity of marriage, even as her respect for him threatens to wane. Davis plays off Washington perfectly, perhaps because both honed these characters on Broadway first. In fact, much of the primary cast did, which is probably why they're all so convincing.

"Ha, ha...shrimp joke. Haven't heard any of those before."
From a narrative standpoint, Washington does right by August Wilson's play, though aside from a few brief-but-effective scenes in and around Pittsburgh's Hill District (the setting for most of Wilson's work), the film never quite escapes its stage origins. Much of it takes place in a few rooms of the Maxson home and in the backyard where the fence is being built.

But that's okay. A movie like Fences lives and dies by its characters. The film isn't the most uplifting experience on Earth, but everything about these characters, from their mannerisms & expressions right down to their dialect & voice, feel completely real. Even during the most seemingly trivial conversations, we learn as much about their lives, both past and present, as the words Wilson gave them.

"Expanding the Audience: From Stage to Screen" - How Fences was adapted while remaining faithful to the play;
"Building Fences: Denzel Washington" - Denzel's challenge working as oth actor and director;
"Playing the Part: Rose Maxson" - A featurette on Viola Davis
"The Company of Fences" - I did not realize much of the main cast also performed it on Broadway;
"August Wilson's Hill District" - Recreating Pittsburgh's Hill District as it looked in the 1950s

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