“You gotta take the crookeds with the straights.”
Over the course of Fences, with its inflated length ready to burst at the seams and its thoroughly mouthy lectures mired by unmistakable levels of hypocrisy, we come to know fear. The fear of failure, the fear of regret, and the fear of time’s construct. It’s a quality that admonishes the characters on the screen, and because it’s so direct and unfiltered with its scolding presentation, one that passes judgement onto those of us in the theater seats. We watch a world of hurt, so destitute and oppressive, taking place in a hard time nearly an entire world away from today’s climate of clemency. Fences manages to be a fine film even if it never feels quite like an actual movie.
Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) strictly exists outside of the work week. On Monday he clocks in, and it’s not until Friday afternoon when he finally checks out of being a garbage man that he truly becomes himself again, an old man squeezing his now frumpy frame into an ill-fitting skin he shed so many years ago. He walks home with Bono (Stephen Henderson), his partner on the route and an old friend he met in the pen. They pass around a pint of gin until the bottle has run as dry as the London variety of the drink, Bono listening and laughing, Troy impudently talking and exaggerating at light speed. His wife Rose (Viola Davis) keeps her man in check, a mother to their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and a caretaker to Troy’s occasional drunken charm. He squeezes her behind, lays on kisses, prides himself on his bedroom prowess. All of this while admitting to Bono that he, “eyes all the women.” Troy thinks himself to be an honorable man since he loans money to his older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and takes care of his war wounded sibling Gabe (Mykelti Williamson). We come to learn that he is as dishonorable as he is disingenuous, wanting what’s right for his family but incapable of not tainting the righteous path with his mean streak of wrong. Troy is a villain who wants to be a superhero.
No scene in Fences registers without the weight of Troy’s influence, because, as it’s told, the film is entirely Troy’s story and his shadow. He’s a God-fearing man without ever stepping foot in a church. A pugilist inviting death to his door whenever the man in black wants to square up. Troy’s entire existence has been draped and covered by anguish; a mean daddy, a poor childhood, a shot at professional sports declined by the great white divide of his youth. Fences shows us a man controlled and contrived by his past, unwilling to take the scenic route because he knows the more traveled path will save him a buck or two along the way. Cory is recruited to play football yet Troy doesn’t allow it; partly because he wants his son to be more than a garbage man, somewhat because he sees himself in Cory and doesn’t wish the boy athletic success when it wasn’t afforded to him. Troy preceded the color barrier break of Jackie Robinson, stuck behind bars for 15 years and too old to make the big leagues despite what he might tell you. He only knows how to swing for the upper deck and past the grandstands. Any good baseball mind will tell you that this leads to more strikeouts than home runs.
Fences is an intensely acted production so clearly meant for the theatre – previously collaborated on by Washington and Davis in Tony Award winning roles – that it can’t shake the confines of upstage, downstage, stage left or stage right. The story is clashing, overlong, and introspectively repetitive. It’s also an emotional ride, yet because Washington acts well and directs the film with such magisterial modesty, little is done besides serving up sequential set pieces temporarily lived in by performers who know how to perform and dialogue written to be dialogue. Washington is impeccable as the hard-nosed Troy, inspiring the fearful looks of a father ready to whip a belt or make you tremble in his wake. It’s clear how personal this material is to him. And Davis gives one of the year’s best performances as the near rocksteady and calming presence of Rose, falsely claimed to be a supporting role in a blatant awards reach. She’ll win because she’s that good, but more so because she’s in the wrong category. Rose is a leading actress role and Davis fills her with a studied calculation. As a whole, Fences becomes too obvious, too metaphorical, and too unwilling to cut loose the ties that bind to let itself finally end in a worthwhile manner. These walls are barbed, guarded closely, and only invite you in if you pay a penny here and there. You’re better off peeping from the stoop or the window.
“Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in.”
Rating: 3 out of 5