Fences (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Fences (2016)

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Troy Maxson fights for control of his life.  After failing to make it in baseball, he cheerily works his job as a garbageman, chastises his sons for their life goals, and wants his wife Rose to show love in a way that keeps him satisfied.  Troy's need for control leads him down a path that will separate him from his family, and leave the question of what in this world will really make him happy.  Denzel Washington directs Fences, with the screenplay written by August Wilson, and stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

Denzel Washington has directed only three feature films since the turn of the millennium.  Stylistically speaking, Washington's movies share more in common with Kevin Smith than they do Spike Lee.  With Antwone Fisher, The Great Debaters, and now Fences, Washington seems content sitting the camera down and letting the performers do their thing with carefully doled out dialogue.  Both Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters had a freshness to them in seeing black masculinity empathetically deconstructed in working-class and university-level environments.

Fences has Washington return to the poisons of working-class black masculinity and not a lick of it is cinematically fresh.  This isn't an automatic down point because Washington's plain style didn't make Antwone Fisher or The Great Debaters visually rich.  But with those two films, Washington had screenplays based on a book and an article to work with, which allowed some room for visuals thanks to the descriptions from the source material.  With Fences, Washington works with one of the trickiest cinematic landmines - the stage play turned into cinema.

Denzel Washington's performance in Fences almost overcomes his limits as a director.

August Wilson adapted his own stage play to a screenplay shortly before his death in 2005.  Having previously starred in a Tony-winning production of Fences and enlisting fellow stage performer Viola Davis, Washington is clearly reverent toward Wilson's words.  So reverent that long stretches of Fences play like inner monologues or performer's notes that somehow made it into one of the dozens of rambling exchanges.  The words grate before long and, without the unique emotional punch or self-mythologizing of his other two films, none of Wilson's screenplay feels unique.

There's nothing particularly bad about Wilson's dialogue or scenario, but there's nothing original about it either.  When Troy's (Washington) first son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) comes home to borrow $10, Troy goes into a rant about the need for proper hard work that could be given by any number of disappointed fathers.  Lyons' response makes things even more mundane by espousing how important it is for Lyons to live for music instead of the typical 9-to-5.

"Hardworking father disapproves of sons artistic tendencies."  That's a plot line so old the decay of the outline should stink up any writers room.  But the stench of familiar plot lines and dialogue continues with everyone else in Fences.  Davis' Rose gets one of her signature upset monologues that are a far cry from her mostly silent brilliance in Antwone Fisher.  We've seen this from her in Doubt, the excellent 2002 version of Solaris, and if you want a weekly dose just watch How To Get Away With Murder when that comes back for its fourth season.  Davis' finally winning at the Oscars feels like an acknowledgement of her previous hard work than it does a celebration of her performance here.

Washington fares a little better, which is a relief as Troy has the lion's share of the dialogue throughout Fences.  Troy is a mess of headstrong belief that his family should abide by his rules as he's the one who's worked so hard to keep them alive.  This isn't exactly true, and the best scenes in Fences revolve around Washington's breathless flood of masculine posturing as he tries to drown out criticism with any and all stories he can embellish to prove the criticism wrong.  Washington is so dead-set in Troy's conviction that conversations about the future of his family carry the threat of violence.

Troy's brother Gabriel suffers from diminished mental faculties due to a World War II injury, and is one of the few people who speaks directly of Troy's rage.

It's in this threat that Fences finds its thematic running shoes.  Troy's rage at everything led him to single-minded determination in running his house, fencing his family in to roles he insists as the best for them, and keeping his insecurities at a distance from his loved ones.  Washington's visual approach for this is too bland then too on-the-nose.  After so many scenes of Troy, Rose, and the carousel of loved ones marching in and out of their home in simple shots, Washington switches to a more direct representation of the distance everyone feels as Troy works on the fence and Rose spends more time in church.  The course correction from theatrical to cinematic staging is a rough one, and before long Fences is back with the simple shots and buckets of dialogue.

So much of Fences is routine that I have a hard time recommending it, but it's the same well-meaning blandness that keeps me from warning people away.  Fans of Washington's morally dubious characters would be better served watching his work with Spike Lee, and everything else Davis has done is better than her work here.  Fences is like walking by that couple who always argues - sometimes it's better to move on than trouble your ears with the hassle.

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Fences (2016)

Directed by Denzel Washington.
Screenplay written by August Wilson.
Starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

Posted by Andrew

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