Let it never go unsaid that Denzel Washington can, at times, have a distinct Orson Welles-like command of performance and vision. Of course, even in so called “lesser” movies, like films directed by the late Tony Scott, Washington remains transfixing on screen. He’s never really a scene chewer, but always THE guy in the room. I like to recall his climatic head to head with Bruce Willis in The Siege, a moment that could’ve easily gone south. Denzel comes out of that scene like Superman (the non Zack Snyder variation, both in character and as an actor), intense without being loud, and confident without too much pride. Wellesian.
This can and should be extended to his latest directorial effort Fences, based on the August Wilson play of the same name. It depicts a slice of post-WWII life for a working class African-American family in Pittsburgh, following the patriarch Troy (Denzel Washington). He works hard as a garbage collector, doomed to relive his glory days as a baseball player through his long winded and slightly drunk Friday afternoon talks. For him, it’s rinse and repeat. Sad, but perhaps begrudgingly content, Troy does his best to do right by those around him, but his mouth and longing for more leads to checks that he isn’t wealthy enough to cash.
As an adaptation, this is an exercise in holding back the theatrics while not losing momentum or power. Certainly, Fences does teeter here and there, but the balance remains. As a lover of Glengarry Glen Ross and Inherit the Wind, I can see different ways of portraying the stage on the silver screen. Fences takes it relatively easy, confined to a house setting but always open for expanded views (should they come about). Quite softly, the camera and sound design operate with almost surgical expression, rarely of intimidating or boastful consequence, but always moving and always progressing.
Sometimes, Denzel’s Troy will stand around and look up at a broken window next door, typically while standing by a tree with a baseball hanging from it. This tethered ball is not just a reminder of his past as an athlete, but of his ties to family and regrets over what he’s done and not done in life. The broken window acts almost heavenly, suggesting that he has, to use a sports metaphor, “struck out” and may not ever make things right, doomed to repeat mistake after mistake. As a play, I’m sure this comes across well enough, but it’s solemn and sad visual in the film. And when Troy ultimately takes a bat to it, it’s no longer a fancy but a desperate yet determined act of self pity and futility.
Standing at Troy’s side is the incredible Rose (Viola Davis), who acts as a somewhat suffering voice of reason to her husband’s boisterous self, foibles and all. Anytime Troy talks, which he does at great length, Rose is there to correct him. When he needs affection, she is there to be hugged and kissed. Rose is his confessor, friend and lover. While Troy struggles with the world through a bottle of gin, Rose is left carrying his weight in addition to her own. Davis is sensitive and great willed, showing a considerable strength for life’s unexpected scenarios. In her role and acting, I found the most engagement with my thoughts and feelings, and I wouldn’t dare call this a “supporting” role. It’s a lead.
If you take to twitter often, you may have seen a conversation over the word “universal” when used to describe movies with mass appeal and relatability. Honestly, Fences hits that descriptor too well with the familial drama at heart. I think I agree with the notion that it’s more important to be specific than populist, so allow me to suggest that Fences works best by being a “specific” capsule of modern America. Troy represents the anxiety of fear, change and progress, agents that may tear apart instead of mend. Consider him your Quixotic elder, fighting and flailing against windmills.
In my mind, Fences and Denzel’s work is comparable to the best of Orson Welles. Epic without being obtuse, it features technical craft that can be identified without having to call attention to itself. The closest Welles film that I can connect Fences to would be the recent Criterion release, Chimes at Midnight. Both films are uniquely interpreted adaptations with central characters dealing in self loathing; people who garner pity and empathy in equal quantities. The set pieces couldn’t be more different, but thematically and emotionally, there are many similar contrasts to be made; tragedy of different shades, but sorrow that comes from the same places. Shakespeare and Wilson. Welles and Washington. Why not?
Bill Arceneaux is an independent film critic from New Orleans and member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association. His favorite David Lynch work? Inland Empire. And Batman v Superman continues to puzzle him. Follow him on Twitter @billreviewsand visit his support page at patreon.com/billreviews