4 out of 5 stars.
Fences can be built to keep things in; they can also be built to keep things out. While there is a literal fence being constructed by Denzel Washington’s character Troy throughout the movie “Fences,” it is also symbolic of his and Viola Davis’ character Rose’s relationship to each other, and their family.
“Fences” is directed by Washington, and is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by August Wilson (Wilson also wrote the screenplay for a future film version of it before he passed away). Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the film centers around Troy, a middle-aged man who works as a garbage collector. He lives with his wife, the equally tough and loving Rose, and their seventeen-year-old son, Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy also has a brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who is mentally ill after sustaining a head injury fighting in World War II, and an older son by another woman, Lyons (Russell Hornsby).
We learn about Troy’s past in conversations throughout the film, allowing us to piece together the reasons why he behaves the way he does toward his family. He ran away from home as a teenager, and was sent to jail after killing a man during a robbery. He was a talented baseball player, but got nowhere with it as a career; Rose insists it was because he was too old, while Troy claims it is because he is black. So when Cory is being scouted out by college football recruits, Troy refuses to let him play, saying that it won’t get him anywhere. He also tries to force responsibility on Lyons, a musician who doesn’t have a real job and occasionally comes to Troy asking to borrow money. But we later find that Troy isn’t particularly responsible either, despite his attempts to justify his actions. Rose is the one who asks Troy to build her a fence. For Rose, it’s a way of keeping her family close to her; for Troy, it’s a way of keeping them out, especially his sons, who he simultaneously wants to not repeat his mistakes, but also doesn’t want to be more successful than him.
The entire cast, which also includes Stephen McKinley Henderson as Troy’s best friend Bono, is excellent, but it’s Washington and Davis who really get to sink their teeth into these roles. They’re two of Hollywood’s finest actors at the top of their game. Both of them played these roles in the 2010 revival of the play on Broadway, and both of them won Tony’s for their performances. They are shoe-ins to receive Oscar nominations for their performances here as well. Both of them convey so much with just a look. Washington is able to transform Troy from joking and light-hearted to sober and down-trodden in the blink of an eye. Davis is electrifying as the wife and mother trying to hold her family together, but it’s an event that occurs later in the story that really allows her to run the full gamut of emotions and deliver a performance that is both heart-breaking and inspiring.
Any issues with “Fences” lie primarily in the fact that it is likely more effective on stage than on screen. The majority of the action is set in and outside of Troy and Rose’s home, with all of the character and story development happening through conversations. This enhances the idea of containment that the fences in the story represent, but at the same time, it isn’t very cinematic. However, Washington, who hasn’t directed a film in a number of years, proves to be very competent at it, allowing the camera to direct our attention to specific characters at the appropriate moments. “Fences” is still engrossing from start to finish, thanks to its incredible lead performances and complex, full-bodied characters, and the final message it leaves us: that forgiveness is essential, even to those who may not entirely deserve it.
Runtime: 138 minutes. Rated PG-13.