It’s Oscar season and that means we’re overwhelmed with movies hoping to make it just barely into the 2016 nominees. Fences comes to us in this last weekend of 2016 and is getting tons of buzz, so is it a contender?
Based on a stage play by August Wilson, Fences features Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as husband and wife, living in Philadelphia in the 1950s. Troy (Washington) is a former baseball star who nows picks up trash for a living, but comes into conflict with his son (Jovan Adepo) who wants to go to college and play football. Troy is a realist but does some drastic things to keep his son from making the same mistakes that he made himself. We also have Troy’s other son (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s brother (Mykelti Williamson, best known as Bubba from Forrest Gump), and Troy’s best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson).
This movie is being praised for its performances, rightfully so. There are some career-defining performances here. Washington and Davis are both Oscar-worthy and will undoubtedly get at least nominated. They both performed in the stage play of Fences, so they’ve had plenty of time to really get into these characters’ heads. The supporting cast, while small, is stellar as well. Jovan Adepo delivers a surprisingly deep performance, especially as the climax approaches. This is his first big picture but won’t be his last for sure.
The other main strength of this film is the dialogue. It feels very much like a play, as it really only takes place in a few key moments. The banter back and forth is natural, but the words have weight when they need to as well. Denzel’s Troy will be laughing and carefree until one wrong word flips this terrifying switch, which is powerful because of the combination of the written word and Denzel’s ability to bring it to life.
This is an emotional film, unsurprisingly. It’s gutwrenching and sad, authentic to its core. It’s frightening because it feels real, like these are people that really exist and things that could really happen to us.
What doesn’t work?
This isn’t a perfect film. A play and a film are very different mediums and I don’t know how well this translation worked. This movie is long, where a play would have an intermission. The scenes can slow to a snail’s pace at times, causing the audience to let their minds wander.
The pacing hurts the most in the film’s final stretch, with a prolonged epilogue that felt too long. This epilogue included some powerful moments and closure, yes, but it also contained fluff that could’ve been trimmed. Since the playwright also wrote the screenplay, I imagine he had a hard time cutting from the script. A neutral writer might’ve been a little more willing to cut the unessential.
And while I said above that the movie is emotional, it was surprisingly tame in the climax. There were a few moments set up throughout the movie, moments that I was expecting and almost looking forward to, and instead our climax robbed us of that impact. The most emotional moments happen fairly early in the movie, letting our movie end with a bit of whimper instead of a roar.
While we’ll see a handful of nominations from Fences for sure, it’s not perfect. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis give incredible performances, but the movie’s pacing was a tad slow and the ending was anticlimactic, leaving you with a “Hmm” feeling when the credits start rolling. Still worth seeing, but temper your expectations.