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Viola Davis Has Come for Your Heart and Tears in FENCES (Review)

Viola Davis Has Come for Your Heart and Tears in FENCES (Review)

In the summer of 2010, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis teamed up for a powerhouse revival of August Wilson‘s award-winning play Fences. Each won acclaim as well as matching Tony Awards. And now Washington is aiming to continue their winning streak, helming and fronting an earnest film adaptation. Bringing Wilson on to adapt the script, and Davis back to bring the heat as his onscreen wife, the two-time Oscar-winner is swinging hard for a three-peat. But while Fences delivers some of the most riveting performances of the year, it’s far from Best Picture.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences centers on the African-American Maxson family, led by failed ballplayer turned garbage collector and bombastic patriarch Troy (Washington). Coming home on payday, Troy shares a bottle of gin with his long-time friend Bono (Stephen Henderson), and tells tall tales as his loving but no-nonsense-taking wife Rose (Davis) smiles on. Though jolly in jest, Troy turns tyrant when dealing with his sons, jazz musician Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and aspiring football star Corey (Jovan Adepo). Yet Troy is ever tender with his mentally challenged brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who causes ruckus in the streets yowling about hallucinated hell hounds that plague him.

Troy Maxson is one of most complicated and compelling characters to be found in theaters this year, dinged with flaws but glorious in virtues. And Washington plays him with restrain and relish.

Wilson’s dialogue is renowned and feared for the intense intimacy into which it hurls its audience. But Troy’s arrogance and gift of gab–resounding from the film’s first frames and first lines–fit Washington like a long-loved baseball glove. He feels comfortable yet alive in Troy’s monologues, rants, and rationalizations. Yet Washington pulls back on his larger-than-life charisma, packing on a potbelly, letting his face go scruffy, and keeping that dazzling movie star smile in check. All this makes the play more filmic, less theatrical, and Troy more real, less symbolic. Directing himself, this icon of American cinema knows his strengths and what audiences expect of him, and toggles both to create a portrayal that is as challenging as it is captivating.

A clever director, Washington shrewdly stacked the deck, bringing back several cast members from his Fences run, including Henderson, Hornsby, and Williamson. Each delivers a performance that feels lived in, but never lackluster. With a sparkle in his eye, Henderson offers the perfect friendly foil to Troy’s intensity, which makes his big confrontation scene breathtaking in its tenderness. Trembling on the brink between calm and losing his cool, Hornsby delivers a righteous rage to Lyons, while pulling just enough Washington-like charm to make their father-son bond real. And Williamson, who might be best known as Bubba from Forrest Gump, brings a childlike energy and anxiety to Gabriel that earns the soft side of tough Troy. But Davis is the recurring cast member who is undoubtedly Fences’ MVP, and its most likely to secure Oscar gold.

While Troy blusters and brags, Rose watches and occasionally zings, reminding him not to get too big for his britches. Though Wilson writes Rose as resilient, generous and brave, the character could easily get lost amid so much testosterone and testifying. But with every shot, Davis stakes her claim. She exudes warmth and patience, caring not only for Troy, but also for his children and brother with an endless sweetness. But when the Maxsons disagree on what’s best for Corey’s future, Davis stiffens her spine and narrows her eyes, refusing to be a wilting Rose. And when this proud wife is hurt and betrayed, her tears are terrible and mighty. Davis will crush you with her heartbroken appeals, and then rebuild you with her final pleas. She is a maestro, conducting our emotions with a deft twist of her mouth or sharp shift of her big brown eyes. In Fences, Davis delivers a performance so impactful it will inspire countless actresses to chase the dream in hopes of achieving one moment nearly as strong and devastating as these.

Fences‘ performances are hands down some of the best of the year. But while Washington was diligent in toning down the theatrics to better suit the cinema, he half-heartedly strove to make it cinematic. The script so rich with dialogue makes it impossible to forget this is an adapted play. But that need not be any sort of problem, if the visual language bolsters the speeches. Here is where Fences falls frustratingly short. The shot choices often feel haphazard, lacking coverage that reveals the faces of both performers in a crucial moment, or cutting to a jarring insert shot to dodge a jump cut. There’s no staging or shot compositions that stand out and or hit emotionally as so many of the performances do. It seems Washington thought it was enough to capture these portrayals, and not concern himself with elevating the material further through compelling cinematography or astonishing mis-en-scene. So while Fences is a must-see for its astonishing cast and their outstanding performances, it’s an unexpectedly underwhelming cinematic experience.

3.5 out of 5 burritos. 

3.5 burritos

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