Denzel Washington spends much of his adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 play “Fences” in a state of rage, shouting reams of spiteful dialogue into the unforgiving void.
His Troy Maxson has ample cause for resentment: once a great Negro League baseball player, he’s now stuck toiling as a garbage man in 1950s Pittsburgh, earning minimal pay and helpless as social forces beyond his control have denied him the fame, fortune and happiness his athletic gifts warranted.
Things are exacerbated to destructive heights by the news that the teenage son (Jovan Adepo) he shares with wife Rose (Viola Davis) intends to play football in college. It’s the catalyst for Wilson’s exploration of the devastating costs of America’s legacy of racism and segregation as they play out in a nondescript home, in an ordinary city, elevated to dramatic levels of Shakespearean proportions.
Washington and Davis have been here before — they co-starred in the 2010 Broadway revival and both won Tony Awards for their troubles.
Wilson adapted the screenplay before he died in 2005. The script flows like one extended monologue, a harangue against the heavens, with sporadic interruptions as other characters come in and out of the picture, and the long-suffering Rose reaches a point where she can no longer overlook her husband’s frailties.
And Washington, as the director, keeps the characters front-and-center, typically in close-up while only sporadically pulling his camera back for a broader cinematic perspective.
There’s a theatricality to the picture, then, that can be jarring. We’re accustomed to a degree of naturalism in cinema given the realities of on-location shooting and there’s an inherent instinct to dismiss a motion picture that consciously rejects it to achieve its truth through artifice.
Here, the backyard of the Maxson home is the stage and the world outside the front door is a sinister force that’s felt but rarely seen. The blocking of the actors is deliberately crafted and processed; each mark is hit demonstratively and Washington retains what appears to be the same basic movements the actors might have taken on the stage.
This material turns on a series of embittered confrontations, on unchecked fury. Accordingly, the movie never breathes — it practically suffocates alongside its protagonist, unable to shake the despair, the self-disgust that are all that’s left to animate him.
The stripped-down approach effectively emphasizes the performances — Washington is compelling if occasionally one-note as he shakes with anger while Davis expertly suggests a rich and complex inner emotional life through simple reaction shots and a slow-build of frustration. As the young man striving to escape the morass of his family home, beset with sadness and determination, Adepo provides the audience with a way in, a ray of light and hope amid the abiding darkness.
Most importantly, Washington’s approach gives Wilson’s extraordinary words and rich metaphorical story the platform they deserve.