“You’ve got to take the crooked with the straights” barks Troy Maxson to his son Cory while instructing the young man to quit the football team. The line is not meant to comfort Cory, whose hope of earning a scholarship will be killed as a result of his father’s demands, but rather to remind him that life is filled with good and bad experiences. In some ways the phrase can easily sum up Troy himself.
In Denzel Washington’s latest directorial effort, Fences, the patriarch of the Maxson household is the embodiment of both good and evil. He is a tyrant who views himself as a complex saint. By his own account he is doing everything that is expected of him. He goes to work every day as a garbage man, trying not to ruffle any feathers while questioning why none of the route drivers are Africa-American, in order to provide for his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). He is a man who believes in the value of hard work and knows firsthand that nothing in life comes easy.
Though Troy may preach to his family about the importance of respect, especially to Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his son from a previous marriage, he rarely puts this into practice himself. In fact, he is continually consciously and unconsciously sabotaging those around him. Plagued by a harsh childhood, and never being able to achieve his own dreams, Troy is unable to see past his hatred towards the cards life has dealt him.
It is this study of a man so selfishly consumed with his own past that fuels much of the drama in the film. Adapted from August Wilson’s play, there is a beautiful texture to the rhythmic beats of the dialogue. Conversations wander in various directions, sometimes seemingly unimportant on the surface, but reveal so much about each character.
The center of his own world, it quickly becomes clear that Troy is not the self-made man he portrays himself to be. Forced to hustle to survive from a young age, Troy, now in his early 50’s, has never stopped looking for an angle to exploit. He is a walking contradiction in every possible way.
He claims Rose is the best thing that happened to him, but cheats because his mistress lets him be himself. He regales all who will listen with tales of a budding baseball career halted too soon, but neglects to acknowledge that he was too old to make the pros. He laments about the mental state that a war injury has left his brother in, but finds ways to abuse his brother’s trust in order to keep the insurance money for his own purposes.
Denzel Washington’s gripping performance succeeds in bringing Troy’s dastardly complex nature to life. Having played the role in the stage production, there is a darkness that Washington effortlessly conveys. He revels in the villainous role and serves as the perfect counterpart to Viola Davis’ sensational work in the film. As Rose, Davis not only brings to life a woman who has given up everything to devote herself to her marriage and family, but also helps to show how complicated Troy’s relationship with the family is. Even as Cory, and the audience for that matter, wants nothing to do with Troy, it is Rose who constantly reminds everyone that, even in his darkest moments, they are bonded to Troy for better or worse.
While Washington and Davis are the standouts, it can be said that Fences is an acting clinic from top to bottom. There is not a bad performance in the bunch as even supporting turns from the likes of Stephen Henderson and Mykelti Williamson light up the screen.
The only thing that holds Fences back somewhat is Washington’s direction. While he succeeds in bringing a claustrophobic level of tension to many of the scenes, the film never shakes its “play” feel. As characters enter the frame from one side while others leave from the other, one cannot help but picture a stage setting rather than a cinematic one. Fortunately, stellar performances frequently overshadow the film’s shortcomings.
Bringing the complexities and hypnotic rhythms of August Wilson’s great dialogue to life, Fences is not only a tour de force in acting, but it will have audiences eager to get their hands on a copy of the play.