Director: Denzel Washington
Stars: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo
Denzel Washington is something of an old fashioned Hollywood star. He shuns the limelight, manages to stay out of the gossip columns. Works doggedly for studios on safe, respectable pictures, generally maintains a level of solid integrity. That doesn’t make him especially ‘interesting’ in some terms, but there’s something comforting in his ability to sustain himself in our era or prying eyes and salacious fake news (something he was admirably articulate about recently).
But this general old-fashionedness makes this directorial effort fitting as it’s the kind of picture that typified Hollywood in the 40’s and 50’s. Wordy, unambitious melodrama, adapted from the stage with barely a thought for the medium it’s been transferred to. Fences isn’t so much an adaptation of August Wilson’s play as it is a hamfisted transplant. I imagine it crackles in a theatre, where it’s handful of locations and actors are a basic necessity of the format, but Washington does nothing to make the material shine on the screen. It’s two hours and twenty minutes long and you may as well close your eyes the entire time as there’s little or no information imparted visually that you wouldn’t be able to gather otherwise.
This doesn’t by itself equal a bad film. The same criticism could be levied at much of the hit TV show The West Wing for instance, which for all it’s walk’n’talk was often little different from an exceptionally written radio play. The West Wing was never 140 minutes long, however, and dared to change location occasionally. At least 90 minutes here take place in the same back garden, the primary feature of which is a brick wall. So it is at about the 45 minute mark that Fences starts to test patience and wear thin. There are plenty of movies adapted from plays which have become great films. Fences isn’t likely to become of them.
It’s 1956 and Washington plays odious blowhard Troy Maxson, a garbage collector who comes home liquored up every Friday to sit or stand in his garden and expound on whatever takes his fancy as his doting wife Rose (Viola Davis) patiently waits on him. He is ordinarily joined by co-worker Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) and Fences begins by documenting the way this routine goes. Troy holds court, spinning yarns and expelling righteousness while refusing to let others have their say unless it fits into his badgering world view (ceaselessly sculpted from elaborate, tiresome and sometimes obscure baseball metaphors). While he sees himself as a just man, the film will ultimately paint him as a hateful hypocrite, slowly but surely fencing himself off from his loved ones.
Said loved ones include two sons, Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and Cory (Jovan Adepo). The former is in his thirties and Troy refuses to engage with him outside of assuming with hostility that Lyons only wants his money, the latter is a teenager, eager to develop his own skills and flourish in the world, but whom Troy holds back with stubborn self-awareness, lest the boy beat him at life. On the peripheries, and depicted with the kind of blunt-force corniness that would make Robert Zemeckis blush, is Troy’s feeble-minded brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson); a character whose sole narrative purpose appears to be tied to the film’s egregious final shot, which single-handedly outdoes the first hour of Hacksaw Ridge in terms of overbearing schmaltz. Yessir, Fences is a picture truly out of time.
It seems as though this is intended first and foremost as a character piece, seeing as by the end it amounts to little more than a succession of kitchen sink melodramas. Troy’s borish patriarchy is what we’re being subjected to. It tires quickly. He lies so often that his self-styled back story leaves the viewer unsure as to whether it’s all bullshit again, relieving the confession of impact. Troy comes from a time when being a bitter and selfish bastard was a valid or respectable ideal, at least from the perspective of said bastards. His extended family tiptoe around piercing his thin skin, damaging that brittle ego – though they all still manage to with wearying frequency. Troy is aware of who he is, of his problems, but he denies his own awfulness, instead reconfiguring his value system to justify himself. It doesn’t impress. And while Washington give it his all, the character sucks oxygen out of the rest of the picture.
Davis is easily the best thing about the film despite – even perhaps because – she has the least to say. Fences is a battle of motormouths, but Rose is frequently silent, especially in the first half. Davis, denied speechifying, resorts to other methods of expression and says more with a look that others do with pages and pages of bluster. It’s not until two-thirds of the way through that the story allows her out of the box. You’ll know this already from the award ceremonies this season; it’s the clip they’re all using for her because it’s more or less her only ‘large’ moment. Nevertheless, she’s very good.
But Fences simply feels like it’s time has long since passed. The BBFC rating is a 12A, warning of “Outdated use of racist language”. Outdated is right, but it applies not just to Troy’s foul mouth, but to the film at large. This kind of cinema was viable in the 1950’s and examples of it can be looked back on fondly as documents of their time, enjoyed with or without irony. But in 2017 this feels woefully irrelevant. An overlong, sentimental reverie for days gone by, and a tedious one at that.