Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Movie Review: Fences (2017)



After yesterday’s parade of posing, it’s nice to actually sit down with a proper king of cool for today’s film. Specifically, the man, the legend and the recently dwindling star that is Denzel Washington. His notoriety as an actor is properly set in stone through his work with Spike Lee and the Scott brothers, but his more recent work is somewhat less compelling. Denzel and director Antoine Fuqua have brought each other much adoration in the past through Training Day, but between the somewhat middling The Equalizer and the outright disappointment of The Magnificent Seven retooling, he hasn’t been at his best of late. Knowing the extremely presentist mindset of today in terms of pop culture, it’s not much of a stretch to say that this guy’s legacy could be in jeopardy in the minds of current filmgoers. Hopefully, today’s film will present a possible resurgence. This is Fences.

The plot: Troy (Denzel Washington) is a down-on-his-luck garbage man who feels like the world has just passed him by due to his race. In-between having to deal with his wife Rose (Viola Davis), his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and his mentally impaired older brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), he muses about his life and circumstances with his best friend Jim (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and just hopes that he can keep his life together as it is.

The cast here, fitting in with the scope of the story, is relatively small but everyone here delivers. Denzel and Viola, both having history with the story through starring in a Broadway revival of the play it’s based on, bring a lot of warmth to the screen as this very natural-feeling older married couple. Denzel himself hits it right out of the park with his wizened yet soulful voice, making his many lengthy monologues smooth as butter to listen to. Henderson works as the earpiece best friend, and he fulfills that role while still giving himself agency in the story, Adepo’s conflicts with Denzel make for easily the strongest dramatic moments of the film and he gives them the energy that they need and Russell Hornsby as Cory’s half-brother does wonders, as his down-to-earth demeanour makes his rather biting words have that much more weight. But probably the actor who deserves the most props here, even more so than Denzel, is Mykelti. Mental impairment is a very tricky gambit and it can often come across as ableist mocking. Thankfully, Mykelti has experience with this type of character as he also played Bubba in Forrest Gump, and that prior history serves him well here as he maintains the character’s dignity while still getting across his condition in a rather tasteful way. That, and he gives a lot of pathos to the ending.

This film’s theatrical origins are very evident in the way that Denzel as a director handles the script, in that you can quite clearly tell that this was a work designed for a format that doesn’t contain the editing and variously angled freedoms of cinema. The fact that this is Denzel’s passion project is quite evident as well just through the dialogue, as Troy is given the lion’s share of monologues throughout. Of course, it’s hard to comment too critically on the efforts at translation, as they are honestly small potatoes when you consider just how well Denzel does at delivering the text both in front of and behind the camera… even considering how much of a departure this is from pretty much anything he’s been involved in over the last several years.

While Troy is undoubtedly the main draw of the work, in any incarnation, the film’s real strengths come in when he is put into the context of the relationships he has with his family. In fact, every actor here is made artistic flesh through their connections to each other: Troy and his wife, his wife and his brother, his brother and himself, their children with their parents, and so on. Even considering how Troy does most of the talking here, the conflicts and arguments between the characters are very engaging and add a lot to the generational themes of the text. Voices this warm and inviting help when dealing with conversations that frequently turn down this many depressing and almost hubristic avenues.

The other main reason why I’m not being as harsh when it comes to this film’s very theatrical narrative trappings is that, in the translation, the literary quality of the words are kept intact from what I can tell. This isn’t like August: Osage County where the text, subtext and performances keep butting heads and prevent any of them from doing what they are best at. Here, through the very Al Bundy mannerisms of Troy, we get a character portrait of a man who had to fight against the world to get where he is and still believes that he is fighting after all that has happened. Hell, the film’s setting juxtaposed with his musings about the acceptance of black people in society (in particular, the realms of sport) creates this strangely timeless perspective that the fight will always continue. The fact that Troy’s character, come film’s end once all the plot threads are finished weaving into each other, could be argued to be in the right in spite of what he has done makes things even more disheartening. Of course, I use that term with its usual negative connotations; quite frankly, having a film this small and this unlike everything else around here is extremely welcomed, especially with how fulfilling it is overall.

All in all, I couldn’t be happier to see Denzel in prime form once again. While his efforts behind the camera leave something to be desired, as the narrative’s origins on the stage are rather obvious, he still manages to convey it on screen in a way that feels warranted and brings out performances worthy of the text. Add to that the very literary brilliance of the writing, which apparently had some uncredited work done by theatrical heavyweight Tony Kushner, and you have a rather Oscar-baity film but one that definitely deserves to be seen… if for nothing more than to remind yourself that Denzel can still act his ass off. It’s better than Raees, as the more nuanced characters here made for a more compelling watch. However, since this film’s seams are fairly visible in terms of adaptation, it falls short of the galvanizing force of Patriots Day.

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