Counterintuitive though it may be, we tend to expect movies to be more realistic than stage plays. Sure, the theater may put you in the same physical space as the actors but something about the proscenium and the invisible fourth wall makes everything larger than life. Movies, on the other hand, despite the endless possibilities of visual trickery, get us up close, turning us into scrutinizing flies on the wall. When a movie is based on a play, as with Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences, there’s friction between these two worlds. The resulting film is a bit awkward, like trying to dance in a suit that’s a size too small, but through some subtle but effective aesthetic choices and some of the best acting you’re ever likely to see, Fences prevails.
Troy (Washington) is a Pittsburgh garbage man in the late 1950s who lives in a modest house with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Plot is not the point; mostly we’re here to see Troy work through his notions of what he stands for, what he once stood for and what his legacy will be. He does this via an ongoing series of monologues (not really conversations) directed at his wife and Cory as well as at his brother (Mykelti Williamson), his best friend (Stephen Henderson) and his older son from before he met Rose (Russell Hornsby).
Wilson himself serves as screenwriter and he shoves us into his world with a virtuosic monologue by Troy that starts on the back of a garbage truck, then continues down a street on foot while dodging kids playing stickball, caroms around the side of a house and finally arrives in a backyard where Troy regales Bono (Henderson) and then also Rose with braggadocio and tall tales. It’s a showy beginning but cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Far from the Madding Crowd) keeps things grounded with smooth but unobtrusive Steadicam shots. As things progress and we grow more accustomed to the flowery prose, Christensen’s camera grows more bold and untethered, eventually lifting toward the sky in a Malickian fashion.
Troy’s constant speeches reveal him to be a difficult man of principle. He’s devoted to noble ideals like duty, responsibility and accountability but often to the detriment of his emotional membership in his family. He had a career in Negro League baseball in the days before the color barrier was broken in the Major League and, for these reasons and more, claims that he was born with two strikes against him. Of course, he’s right but, Wilson invites us to ask, to what extent is that an excuse for the stern and cold way he treats his son? How many of Cory’s dreams must be sacrificed because those of his father withered so bitterly?
Bitterness, however, is only a superficial reason for Troy’s bullheadedness. From that opening monologue on, we begin to understand that Troy is in a constant, internal struggle with death. Death is personified in Troy’s legend of himself; as far as Troy is concerned, he and Death are equals on the field of battle. The meager but respectable home, life and family that he’s built are the spoils that the Reaper hopes to gain in besting him. The fight can only end one way but Troy is determined to stand his ground as long as possible, even as he acknowledges that Death is the only thing that can bring him peace.
Troy’s dance with oblivion goes on a little too long—Fences feels like it could end at any point in its last twenty minutes—but a little bit of dawdling is worth it when it means more time with this cast. Washington and Davis are both strong contenders for the title of Greatest Living Actor. Fences not only puts their talents on display, it shows us what the art of acting can really do. These two wrestle the infinite to the ground and mold it into flesh with their bodies and their wits.