Fences isn’t Denzel Washington’s first feature-length directorial effort, but it will likely prove to be the one that cement his behind-the-lens talent in the minds of a the moviegoing public. This adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name is harrowing, to say the least, but it stands out among the crowded awards season as the performance movie. There are many standout performances in many pictures out just at the moment, but looking at sheer ensemble tour de force acting, it’s tough to rival Fences.
The film follows Troy Maxon (Washington) a sanitation worker in the 1950s who’s grappling with his lot in life, with race relations and with fatherhood. Viola Davis stars opposite as Troy’s long-suffering wife, Rose. Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby enter the fray as Troy’s sons — Cory, an promising football player (Adepo) and Lyons, a 35-year-old musician (Hornsby). Mykelti Williamson and Stephen Henderson round out the ensemble. This cast isn’t sprawling, but that every one of them shows up in every scene is essential. Fences is a drama built on conversation. Delivery is everything to the success of this movie. And in the performances, Fences doesn’t miss a step.
Fences is Denzel’s movie, but it is Viola’s show. Troy may be the protagonist of this story, but Rose is the hero. She owns all of the empathy. Washington gives Troy a world-weariness and anger constantly simmering below the surface. Davis has the more difficult task. Rose is controlled and unfailingly kind. Her desperation is of the silent variety and the real work comes through in so many things she doesn’t do, choices she doesn’t make. It’s the kind of performance that stands out even amidst other fine performances, and it’ll keep you glued to Fences even in the moments that don’t exactly leap off the screen.
For all the success it finds in the performances, the film is a bit uneven in the pacing and plot trajectory. At times the story feels a bit plodding and without momentum — rather more like a string of vignettes or scenes than a narrative that we want to follow to conclusion. It also suffers somewhat from being the kind of picture that demands the viewer wrestle with it. The themes it explores and questions it raises are great fodder for post-viewing discussion, but that doesn’t make the experience anymore joyful. Every moment of grime and grimness is absolutely earned, but that doesn’t make it any less wrenching to watch Rose’s selfless trajectory or Cory’s fruitless efforts to win his father’s love.
When all is said and done, you’ll be glad to have watched Fences, you’ll recommend it to others, but in the moment it’s a real challenge, you might not even enjoy it until everything comes full circle. Come ready for heady drama, beautiful (if very plentiful) dialogue and one of the best collections of performances you can see this year.