Saturday, January 7, 2017

Movie Review: "Fences"

I remember when there was so much buzz generated around the thought of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino finally acting in a scene together in Heat. What would it be like for two lions of the cinema to finally appear together—would the film implode from all of the energy and talent? (Although they both appeared in The Godfather Part II they had no scenes together.) As you might imagine, it was a pretty electrifying scene, even though it wasn't performed at full throttle like both often do.

I didn't get the chance to see Denzel Washington and Viola Davis appear in the stage version of Fences in 2010, but that was another pairing I assumed would be electrifying, given the incredible power they bring to every role, plus the raw emotion of August Wilson's play. And while I thought the movie ran a tiny bit too long (I don't remember if it followed the play completely), not only did Washington and Davis, as well as their supporting cast, not disappoint, but they dazzled.

Fences takes place in 1950s Pittsburgh and focuses on Troy Maxson (Washington), a sanitation worker who once had dreams of playing professional baseball, but by the time black players were admitted into the major leagues, he was deemed too old. This perceived unfairness has always stuck in his craw, and causes him to look at his son Cory's dreams of playing football with a jaundiced eye.

Troy's bitterness doesn't stop him from wanting a bigger piece of the pie, and he wants the chance to be a driver like white men get. He also wants to be able to provide a little more for his family, although that doesn't stop him from complaining that his long-suffering wife, Rose (Davis), takes all of his money, and belittling his ne'er-do-well musician son Lyons when he asks to borrow money occasionally.

Troy is a larger-than-life presence in Rose and Cory's life—he talks big, he drinks big, and likes to shoot the bull with his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson, reprising his Tony-nominated role) about once-impressive athletic skills, manhood, everything. But while boastful, Troy is surprisingly caring about his brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who sustained a brain injury during WWII, and now roams the streets shouting that he is working on God's behalf, ridding the world of hell-hounds, and getting ready for when he has to blow his horn to let St. Peter know it's time to open the gates of heaven.

A great deal of the play is characterized by emotional outbursts and confrontations among the characters, none more powerful than between Troy and Cory, as the father tries to remind the son who is boss and who is not ready to be a man, and Troy and Rose, about responsibility, loyalty, their treatment of their son, and rehashing old hurts and resentments. Washington directed this film with finesse; although movie versions of plays often feel too open once they're taken out of the four walls of the theater, this film feels comfortable in its space but knows its limits.

As you might imagine, the performances in this film are top-notch. Davis, who eschews even the slightest vanity when she cries onscreen, is utterly mesmerizing, she is both heartbreaking and strong, emotional and stoic. While I am unhappy with the decision to list her as a possible nominee for Best Supporting Actress rather than Best Actress, when she is in at least 90 percent of the movie and she won the Tony for Best Leading Actress, there is no denying she not only will get an Oscar nomination but finally win the award she so richly deserves. (And then she'll be three-fourths of the way toward winning the EGOT—better get your CD working Viola!)

Washington's role is a lot of bluster and anger, and his character isn't particularly sympathetic at times, but his performance is tremendously complex. I saw the play in its original run on Broadway when James Earl Jones played Troy, and while you couldn't deny his presence on stage (especially with that voice), Washington takes the role to another dimension. He is so fascinating to watch onscreen, and his character serves as the film's anchor, so much so that when he isn't on camera, the film feels slightly off-center. I certainly expect him to receive another Oscar nomination for his performance.

There isn't a weak link in the supporting performances—Williamson makes your heart break, while Henderson's quiet presence is the perfect foil to Washington's volume, but Henderson doesn't get lost in the shuffle. Both Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby, who play Cory and Lyons respectively, have emotional moments where they stand toe-to-toe (and skill-to-skill) with Washington and Davis.

In the end, this is a bleak movie, but it is tremendously well-acted and directed. While all the anger and resentment and heartbreak may be hard to watch, the performances are so mesmerizing, you can't tear yourself away.

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