To cut right to the chase, August Wilson’s Fences, brought to the screen by director and star Denzel Washington from a screenplay written by Wilson before his death in 2005, is one of the best films of the year.
The film centers around Troy Maxson (Washington), a former Negro league baseball player who is now working as a garbage collector in Pittsburgh and living with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his son Cory (Jovan Adepo), a budding athlete who is on the cusp of being offered a college scholarship to play football.
Troy is consumed by bitterness over his failure to make the major leagues and he takes out his anger on everyone around him, especially his son, who feels his father hates him; beyond that, he cannot understand why his dad won’t sign the scholarship papers necessary for Corey to attend school.
This bare-bones outline of the plot, which leaves out some other twists and turns I’ll leave unaddressed so as not to provide spoilers, does not do justice to the story of regret, anger, frustration and despair brought to life brilliantly by the entire cast, particularly Washington and Davis, who give a master class in film acting.
Washington superbly portrays a man beaten down by life yet who fails to see his own shortcomings in a performance in which he uses his voice, his facial expressions and even his posture (see how effectively he slumps his shoulders but still retains the grace of the ex-athlete going to seed) to create a mesmerizing character; though Washington played the role in a 2010 Broadway production, for which he won a Tony, there is a world of difference between stage and film acting and he is superb here, matched by Davis in a quieter but no less compelling performance.
Washington the director does not fare quite as well, as his staging can be a bit heavy-handed (there is a shot of a falling rose that is a bit much) but he wisely doesn’t try to expand the film too much from its stage roots (the vast majority of it takes place in the Maxson home and yard), a decision that allows the film to capture the narrow confines of Troy’s world.
Washington has announced his intention to ultimately bring all of Wilson’s ten-play cycle to the screen, and based on this first effort, one can only hope he succeeds because he has done a masterful job with this poignant, heartbreaking first effort, which gets seven out of seven of my run on sentences.
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