Cinematic Releases: Fences (2016) - Reviewed

The late two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson’s Tony Award winning Fences finally makes the debut to the silver screen after nearly thirty-three years thanks to actor/director Denzel Washington in his third effort both in front of and behind the camera, resulting in one of the year’s most captivating minimalist small town dramas.  Set in the 1950s in an impoverished black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the film is a character study of a former Negro League player turned garbage man named Troy Maxson (Washington in the lead role) approaching the precipice of a midlife crisis as his son grows into a teenager and his marital relations with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) become strained.  Meanwhile an underlying thread involving Troy constructing a fence to shield himself from his neighbors in addition to his own fear of dying, Fences presents a difficult, alienating character in the throes of implosion in the face of an ever changing world around him.

Wearing the modestly sized scale of the theater stage play setup on its sleeves, this almost entirely dialogue driven piece is set to become one of the year’s surprise Oscar contenders with fantastic performances from all involved with a near silent power that rendered the audience I saw it with speechless.  Nearly all of it consists of exchanges in the backyard with the completion of the insulating fence indicating the passage of time over the course of the picture.  Akin to The Great Santini with keen observation of the increasingly contentious father-son dynamic and heated tensions growing between the married couple, Fences is heartwarming, compelling, moving and at times painful to watch as we see a man at crossroads losing his grip on his life, family and friends. 

Cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen is scenic with moments of occasional scope and the ambient score by Marcelo Zarvos serves as a soft hiss of a whisper augmenting the quiet drama.  Ultimately though, the film is an actors’ piece serving as a platform for Viola Davis and Denzel Washington to love and lock horns with the backyard as the playing field.  Also among the key supporting players include Stephen Henderson as Troy’s lifelong friend Jim Bono, Mykelti Williamson (Bubba from Forrest Gump) as Troy’s mentally disabled younger brother and Jovan Adepo as Troy’s rebellious son Cory, all of whom are equally excellent.  Much like Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women released earlier this year, Fences is less interested in decoding the central protagonist’s behavior as it is in observing him living in the moment as the world moves on past him. 

My tummy hurts. You have any of that there Pepto Bismol?

Moving at a leisurely pace exceeding the two-hour mark, Fences isn’t so much a plot driven piece as it is an observation of a man who blames nearly everyone but himself for the hardships and misfortunes befalling him.  Some viewers may get a little restless at the intense quiet and the gentle pacing, but for my money these characters over the course of the movie became as real as anyone you’ve known your whole life.  More than anything, the film and the play function as a study of an entire generation trapped in the past and unable to accept the impact their actions have on the present.  I found it wholly captivating and see it as another example of why Denzel Washington is considered one of the finest actors still in the business today.


- Andrew Kotwicki