The long gestating big screen adaptation of August Wilson’s award winning play Fences sees the Broadway stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their roles with the former also taking on directorial duties. This is an actor’s film in that it doesn’t require wanton destruction, big budget visual effects or spectacle to drive the story. This is great drama with a hugely problematic final note.
It’s 1950s America on a sun-drenched afternoon in a nameless suburban city when we meet Troy Moxson (Denzel Washington), a middle aged garbage collector hanging off the back of a truck riffing with his co-worker and best friend Jim (Stephen Anderson), their exchanges drip with sentimentality and, as the conversation continues post work to the backyard stoop of Troy’s home, we are treated to anecdotes of their younger years and brighter times. We’re also introduced to Troy’s former glory as renowned baseball player, his penchant for gin and his long suffering wife Rose (Viola Davis).
A plain terrace, the Moxson residence is a one of basic decor. They live a modest existence with their teenage son Cory (Jocan Adepo), a gifted footballer with dreams of the big leagues, and the occasional unexpected visit of Troy’s elder son from another marriage Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a gifted musician who plays a local club, who turns up asking for money. We also learn of Troy’s brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who lives across the street, a war veteran who’s mind has been destroyed by the savages of conflict.
With two sons chasing their dreams, a brother destroyed by defending the American dream and he himself giving up on his own to raise a family, Troy’s decades of disappointment have been managed by his reliance on the bottle and, much to his ignorance, the sacrifices that his wife Rose has made to support him. With a long delayed job of building a fence around the property finally coming to the fore, it puts Troy on a collision course with Cory which sets in motion the unravelling of the man.
Washington’s direction of the film is complemented by having such a stellar cast of established actors in key roles. Viola Davis, in particular, is the stand out here and this is a lead role (not a supporting turn as Oscars would have you think). Whilst Wilson’s 1983 play focusses more centrally on Troy, it is the story of Rose as the embattled wife who sticks by her husband through it all that is most resonating. A late plot development gives Davis the floor to thunderously steal the film away from all around her even though Washington also turns in his best performance in decades.
The film powers throughout heft and high drama from the get go. It’s robust dialogue tells the tale with prowess and all of the central players get enough meat to deliver well rounded characters. As the arcs are travelled, perceptions are changed.
It comes as a great shame, however, that the film ends on a coda that basically implies that Troy is a heroic character. It attempts to convince you to condone behaviours that have fallen before. Totally at odds with what preceded it and almost laughable in how ‘churchy’ it is delivered – it makes you leave the film feeling it was a problematic end not a proper resolution.
Tonally, production design wise and on a performance level, Fences hits its mark. It’s a powerhouse of drama almost brought entirely undone by the message of the final moments. For those of you, like me, who thirst for high calibre drama, a stop in here won’t hurt.
FENCES is on NATIONAL RELEASE through PARAMOUNT PICTURES