Moviemaking is obviously a team sport. From directors, to actors, to writers, to that bottomless pit of names you see when the film ends, to say there are a lot of moving pieces would be an understatement. It isn’t often you see a project that you either like or dislike for one reason. With all that said, and with all due respect to the many other hands involved, I can say that the acting in Fences makes up 100% of its “good movie” status.
I suppose director Denzel Washington would only be semi-offended by me saying great acting is all Fences really has going for it. As the film’s lead, Denzel gives a performance worth remembering on a long résumé of great performances. Viola Davis, as his on-screen partner, may be even better. The pair forms, in my opinion, the greatest shared performance of 2016. And that level of acting is all Fences really has going for it. To be fair, the film doesn’t pretend to have much else.
The setting itself is constant to a suffocating degree. There may have actually been one set. Maybe the bland and unchanging aesthetic was intentional, designed to convey the same confined emotion that the characters are feeling. But that assumption might be looking for a deeper meaning that isn’t there. Ever hear of the “Ring Theory” for the Star Wars prequels? Sometimes, a director’s vision isn’t automatically the smartest thing you can come up with. Sometimes, an underdeveloped aspect of a movie is just that.
If you’re like me and didn’t know Fences was originally a play, you’ll know it was within five minutes of the movie. Lines are delivered as if people are watching. They’re excellent, but the first few scenes are very clearly a performance. I don’t think there’s even a real score. This isn’t always bad, but something in your movie’s atmosphere has to make the place feel alive. As mentioned earlier, the house feels as if there is no world surrounding it. Even when characters leave a scene, you can tell they’re meant to just wait off-stage until it’s their turn to come back for more dialogue.
Denzel chews up some serious scenery in a dynamic first act meant to bring his complicated character to life. Troy Maxson is one of those family men who ooze charisma but might beat his entire family half to death at any moment. I have trouble relating to the “call your dad sir” generation, but have seen enough good movies to get the gist of the era. That sets a nervous tone from the perspective of the other family members. Troy is volatile to the point of villainy, yet oddly endearing as a lead character. I suppose that latter bit is the Denzel effect, but he utilizes his own acting strengths well against the template of a character we should not like.
Troy’s decline is less of a transformation than it is a revelation. Denzel sets this up by letting us see how there’s clearly something going on beneath the surface, but waits to tell us the full nature of Troy’s problems. The film’s shift in tone is made possible and palatable by the believability of the people we’re watching. Lesser movies might’ve right-angled straight into misery after a fluffy introduction, but Fences lets you read the writing on the wall long before anything hits the fan.
Viola Davis’ Rose Maxson essentially holds the audience’s hand and takes over as the spiritual lead once Troy’s emotional downfall begins. I’m a little surprised she’s in a Supporting Actress category, given the fact that Fences very clearly shares its lead role, but under those circumstances she’s an easy pick to win. Davis’ vulnerability is heartbreaking, and that overly dramatic scene used for her award-show clips is actually a disservice to the subtlety she brings to a very difficult part. It’s a much better scene in context because that outburst feels earned, instead of some talented actress begging for an award. The “toughness via resilience” angle isn’t easy to portray on screen. I guess if more films had Viola Davis, we’d see it more often.
Two actors carry the team but, when acting is your film’s only notable strength, you better have all hands on deck. I don’t normally list out a cast but Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Mykelti Williamson and Russell Hornsby (all names I clearly remembered) all lend their talents to an immensely gifted ensemble. If these supporting pieces aren’t able to assist two near-perfect leads, Fences simply does not work.
Unfortunately, Manchester by the Sea exists so you’re only looking at one reasonable Oscar win for this one. Viola Davis can, should, and probably will go home with a golden gentleman. For what it’s worth, my vote in an Affleck-less year would go to Denzel over Ryan Gosling or whoever is rumored to be the unofficial runner-up. I don’t think the film as a whole deserves much Best Picture consideration, but it’s a collaboration to be appreciated. Fences feels like another movie’s audition for Denzel and Viola Davis that’s definitely going to work out for them. If that’s enough to make you want to see something, add this one to your pre-Oscar list.