What works on stage doesn’t always work on film. In “Fences,” what always works are the performances of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Even in scenes where you can practically hear the actors’ voices reverberating off the walls of an unseen stage, the power of their acting does all the work necessary to carry its 127 minute runtime.
Relying solely on those performances is also its biggest flaw. If you walk into the theater not knowing “Fences” is an adaptation of a stage show, you’ll certainly leave knowing it. It’s far too faithful a retelling and too static to be a great film, but as a showcase for great performances it offers something beautiful.
The story is complicated, centering on Washington’s darkly complicated Troy, a man trying to face the changing times of the 1950s with admittedly limited success. He battles everyone in his life, at first as fun to him as the game of baseball. Then it gets darker and darker still.
As Washington descends into darkness, unable to cope with a changing world, the film softens too much for him. It allows him moments of humor to bring the audience back on his side or offers a brief moment of humanity to remind us he’s the protagonist in all the proceedings.
The reality is that Davis’ Rose is the hero in this story. Unfortunately, albeit realistically, she is as tangled into Troy’s web as anyone, with only the couple’s youngest son, Cory, making an effort to break free from it all.
The film belongs to Washington, for better and for worse, and while his story is a compelling one it’s hard to ever find a moment to feel sympathy for Troy. Yes, his childhood was difficult and yes he lives in a time nearly impossible to survive for a black man in the United States. But he also inflicted intolerable cruelty on his family again and again with no remorse and no time for reflection.
Troy is always right and Troy spends hardly a moment to consider how his actions hurt those around him. A product of the time? Sure. But why make the protagonist of a film an emotionally abusive father, then? As the film closes, a bright light shines down from the sky to symbolize Troy with the rest of the cast gazing up into it. Perhaps their faces show some conflict, or even some melancholy, but if the film was honest with itself it would end with the clouds swallowing up the sun.
“Fences” is a bleak film and deserved an ending that treated its material as such.
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