Denzel Washington has been out of the awards game for quite some time, and it’s hard to blame him. After two Oscar wins, the man is more than entitled to have some fun. That’s exactly what he’s done for over a decade, headlining one action hit after another. However, it appears that Washington has started to smell gold once again, bursting back onto the prestige scene with Fences. Both starring in and directing this adaptation of August Wilson’s 1983 play, he seems intent on proving that years of glib gunfire haven’t dulled his chops.
Washington plays Troy Maxson, a former baseball player turned blue collar trash collector. He’s made a decent life for himself with his wife Rose (Viola Davis), but is consumed by bitterness stemmed from not being able to go pro. This apathy is often taken out on his two sons, particularly Cory (Jovan Adepo), who has dreams of playing football in college. Meanwhile, Troy must ensure that his mentally ill brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) doesn’t destroy himself, despite being intent that he is perfectly fine on his own.
Fences is an actors’ showcase above all else, and all of the talent on display is exemplary. Washington gives his best performance since his award-winning turn in Training Day here. Troy is a massive personality, charismatic and friendly one moment and terrifying the next. Underneath all of Troy’s harshness and rage, we see shades of a better man laying underneath. A man who wants a life for his kids that surpasses his own, even when he can’t communicate it properly. Selling all of these layers without any of them seeming out of left field is an enormously difficult task, which makes it all the more impressive that the role seems tailor-made for Washington. Davis is just as strong in her significantly more subdued performance. She presents us with a woman who may have accepted her husband for his flaws, but only needs one more push to explode. Watching these two go at it when the stakes start to rise makes for some of 2016’s finest drama. Adepo also shows major potential, holding his own with his scenery chewing elder. The only one who comes off a bit false is Williamson, who is stuck in an exaggerated caricature that seems pulled out of a 90s Oscar-bait movie, fitting considering that he played Bubba in Forrest Gump.
August Wilson’s script is razor sharp. While there’s a great deal of intensity in this film, there’s an equal amount of warmth and humor. The tonal ebbs and flows are extremely well constructed, never bombarding the audience with too much of one speed. For the most part, each scene runs over ten minutes and as such, the actors are given a lot of breathing room to play with the different dynamics of each moment. We learn so much about these people through each interaction so that it feels like a real, if highly dysfunctional, family. However, some of the dialogue does veer into cheap exposition territory, with characters going on extreme conversational tangents to arrive at an important piece of information. In other words, it’s stage writing.
However, despite all of these wonderful elements, Fences falls a bit short of being the great film it so clearly wants to be as it starts to run into trouble from the sheer limitations of its structure. The majority of the story takes place in or around Troy’s house, and for a film that runs over two hours, that’s suffocating. Washington’s direction isn’t particularly dynamic either, so, for the most part, we’re just watching an intimate play that just so happened to be filmed on location. While the majority of the scenes are strong on their own merits, Washington would have highly benefited by picking and choosing the best ones. This starts to really hurt the film in the third act, where the story hits a fantastic dramatic crescendo, only to overstay its welcome for another fifteen minutes for an extended round of subtext explaining. It ties everything up a little neater but isn’t nearly as powerful as the note it could have ended on.
In Fences’ strongest moments, it makes a mighty and deeply powerful impression. It certainly stands as some of the best work its two stars have ever done, which is saying quite a lot. Its greatness is only limited by Washington getting in his own way behind the camera and in the editing room. If this were a tighter, more cinematic film, it could have stood as an exemplary transition from stage to screen. As is, we have a solid awards contender that will likely get overshadowed by films that pack a bit more of a wallop.