There’s a feeling you get when you watch a film so well written and performed that is akin to watching a historical event take place; something that you know you’ll talk about with friends and colleagues for years to come. It is so good, in fact, that you will even use it to break the ice with strangers as a way to figure a collective response and assess compatibility for future friendships.
Fences is one of those films.
Do you remember that scene at the start of Inglourious Basterds? The one on the dairy farm where Hans Landa first arrives and there’s line after line of dynamite dialogue as he explains himself and his purpose for intruding? Of course you do. You remember it because it made you feel the power of cinema. The writing was dynamic, original, and was the thing that overtook the imagery to become the essential element of the frame. It is Tarantino at his very best, and there are few who can compete with that. But playwright August Wilson is one who can. And Wilson (who is sole credited screenwriter on Fences) can surpass the glory of Inglorious Basterds, by bringing that feeling and impact to every single moment of Fences.
It is a story which succeeds so mightily because it paints an accurate picture of the grey areas of human life. It is intimate, knowing that to fully explore the workings of a handful of characters paints a canvas as big as any epic. And the workings of these characters are as complex as any you might hope to find in the real world or any work of fiction.
The story centres on the home life of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a man who feels like he’s had nothing but short shrift from the world. He was, by his own account, one of the greatest baseball players that ever lived. Yet he was denied the chance to ever take the plate professionally because of his skin colour. Now he is a garbage man, and though he masks himself in the idea that doing honest work for honest pay is what makes him a man, we see in his eyes that he is harbouring a lifetime’s worth of heartbreak for not being recognised as the talent he believes himself to be. He displays symptoms of a depressive; high in one moment, full of love and laughs with wife Rose, then crashing the next, drinking too much (despite claiming to have a lid on it) and lamenting all that has held him back.
Rose (Viola Davis) is a trier. She wants the perfect family. She can see it just inches from her grasp, and she wears a smile even in the dark moments to try and wrench it closer. She sees the potential in Troy, and she has nothing but love for the people in their life: Their son Cory, Troy’s brother Gabe (suffering from an acquired brain injury in the war and now a vulnerable man), and her stepson Lyons from one of Troy’s previous conquests. She is the kind of woman that a man like Troy is completely undeserving of, and yet accepts his slights and bullish behaviours because of a desire to just live in some semblance of happiness (even a manufactured one).
Over the course of the film Troy makes several attempts to build a fence around their modest backyard. We trace the trials and triumphs of Troy’s life around these construction efforts, and throughout the project the question arises: Are we building a fence to keep things out, or keep things in? It’s a beautiful metaphor for a family unit struggling against the demands of the world.
But it’s the writing and the performances that are key. Washington describes August Wilson as the closest thing Americans have to Shakespeare, and it’s hard to dispute that. The dialogue is so musical, rhythmical and it comes in wave after wave of perfectly constructed stanza. Even though there are more words in this screenplay than 2 regular scripts put together, every one of them counts. It is poetry in motion.
Washington and Davis as the leads are just working on a different level. The performances across the board are wonderful, but the way Troy and Rose are given life is trans-formative. They are embodied fully, their wants, needs, desires, feelings, their inner truths, are lived by the actors. No doubt this is as a result of having played them to great success for a lengthy Broadway run, but nevertheless it is a total masterclass in acting, and both are deserving of Oscar recognition.
Fences is as beautiful and tragic a depiction of life as you’re going to see at any time in your life, whether on screen or on stage. It draws you in to its world and makes you a part of the happening because it puts you so close to the heart of its inner workings.
There will not be a better film in 2017. I guarantee it.