Beloved source material usually demands faithfulness when configured for the big screen. Yet there’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t quality to fealty. Stray too far from the source and you risk alienating the devoted. But hewing too closely to the text can create a lifeless duplication. The latter is the central problem with Denzel Washington’s third directorial effort, “Fences,” an adaptation of the late August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play that treats the text as a sacrosanct object.
It’s a story about the struggles between fathers and sons, the myths behind the seemingly unbreakable bonds of marriage, and the mythmaking of a storyteller who needs his own illusions to cope. It’s about a man who courts and wrestles with death, and grapples with an unrelenting anger for the way his life turned out. But, as more transcription than adaptation, “Fences” feels enclosed by its upright, oratory delivery and its need to replicate the original scroll. It’s essentially a static, filmed play and perhaps one of the most uncinematic adaptations to hit the big screen in recent memory, which is a shame given the talent involved.
Featuring a screenplay penned by the playwright himself, and set in pre-civil rights Pittsburgh in 1950, “Fences” centers on Troy Maxson (Washington on double duty), a garrulous, jocular raconteur on the outside and an embittered man inside, thanks to faded glories and thwarted dreams of a pro baseball career that never came to pass. The racial inequality of the era and the raw deal life handed him at an early age certainly doesn’t help Maxson’s attitude towards the world, and those who live under his roof.
Like his stature, Troy’s presence looms large, as do his myriad self-delusions, the ones that obscure the demons inside his soul. He’s justifiably angry: he’s served time, endured a harsh upbringing, and is routinely overlooked in his sanitation job in favor of white men. The shifting moods of the hardheaded, truth-stretching patriarch hang over his family like dark, unpredictable clouds, with his selfless wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his ambitious son Cory (Jovan Adepo) suffocating under his domineering, intractable rule. There’s also Lyons Maxson (Russell Hornsby), a son from a previous marriage who he also treats like detritus, and Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), Troy’s mentally-ill brother and wise fool archetype that he takes advantage of (cue the Gabriel’s horn cliches).
A man of many contradictions — loving to Rose yet unfaithful, jovial yet brutal — Troy feels entitled to more than he’s been given. His built up acrimony allows him to compartmentalize his life and rationalize his unpleasant behavior. But as played by Denzel Washington, Troy is so sour it’s hard to find empathy for the complicated man, even as he reveals some of his greatest punishments, misfortunes, and darkest complexities.
And yet, Troy still makes for a compelling character (thanks to the layered writing) despite what feels like some broad, dramaturgic acting on Washington’s behalf that doesn’t seem like it has been modulated all that much from his Tony Award winning turn. The rest of the ensemble is admirable too, particularly a sparkling performance by Stephen Henderson as Bono, Troy’s best friend. But it’s Viola Davis who steals the show as the compassionate but undervalued Rose, however, even her emotionally-shattering power is never enough to rescue a movie that works in moments, but not as a whole.
There is a lack of vigor that marks many of the film’s best scenes, and the drama is further hampered by Washington’s unimaginative direction. His toolkit consists of placing the camera in front of the cast and recording the events that unfold. His lens is so enamored by the words and performances, its view renders any visual potential flat. Now, not every film needs to be cinematic and there’s myriad examples of powerful films with outstanding performances where the filmmaking is unshowy and straightforward. But “Fences” is not one of those exceptions.
Ironies abound in “Fences” too. The movie is as inflexible to depart from the text as Troy is to treating his son with kindness. The film is as padlocked to the material as is the play’s barricaded metaphors of keeping people out and trapping loved ones inside. And as for those metaphors, they’re far too on the nose and literal to bear. Baseball analogies are so abused, you’d rather be clocked by a bat than endure another strikeout cliché. In many ways, it’s hard to fault Washington for not deviating from the screenplay. Its based on award-winning material and if it ain’t broke, maybe it should be let alone. However, Washington seems hellbent on recreating a past inspired moment — the acclaimed, Tony winning Broadway revival which featured Washington, Davis, and much of the cast — to the point that the film feels staged. Washington’s “Fences” is like perfect posture gone wrong; a stance so perpendicular it feels unnatural.
“Fences” does contain some great narrative texture about patriarchy, black masculinity, and father and son tensions. Not to mention working class resentments that bleed over into the phenomenon where the father doesn’t want the son to ascend past his lack of success. But Washington dictates these ideas as conventional melodrama rather than interpreting them with true vivacity.
“Is it as good as the book?” (or “play” in this instance) is an often misguided refrain. Different mediums require different approaches and adaptation actually demands according adjustments. Yet, at around two hours and twenty minutes, Washington’s longwinded film feels as if every syllable is present. No monologue can be trimmed, no soliloquy can bear an economical edit. There’s nothing lost in the translation of “Fences,” but its high fidelity means there’s little, if any, inspiration to be found within. [C]