Based on the stage play by August Wilson, Denzel Washington directs and stars, alongside Viola Davis, in the Best Picture nominated Fences. Lee reviews.
There’s nothing inherently wrong in using the standards of another medium to inform cinema; in fact, it could aide us in challenging well-established cinematic conventions. While cinema gives us a solid, variable set of tools to play with when it comes to storytelling, not all need to be used at one time, and no films need ascribe to any prescribed notion of how to portray their work over their own preferred set-up, so long as that set-up allows us to both interpret and enjoy the intentions of that particular story or work.
While Fences, based on a well-regarded stage play, makes little use of exterior locations and settings and falls heavily on its terse, dialogue-heavy narrative to tell its story, it makes for an incredible lesson on characterisation that much of modern cinema could take notes from, and it does so by ignoring much of the tools it has to work with in order to zero-in on what works for this narrative, which are the characters.
Locations are bare-boned at best: a yard, a kitchen, a living room, a front porch opening out onto the street, some bedrooms, an alley between the front and back of the house, a side-entrance and little else. This is a house, if the rooms didn’t tip you off, and almost all of the drama takes place here. Without the distractions and naturally available set-pieces that one could use to draw your attention away, the audience is forced to settle in and absorb what the characters are actually saying to each other, and this works to a remarkable effect. Better still than simply being the intended, its rather crucial to do so, because what the characters say, and how they contradict themselves, is so much more important than what the characters do.
Father and husband Troy is a provider, a man of the town, a pillar for his friends and family, a hypocrite, a narcissist, a braggart and, reluctantly, a challenging “villain” for the narrative to study. His acceptance and interpretation of duty and his scorn for his past failures and upbringing amalgamate into something resembling a victim complex, and from the slow-burn in which we unravel this character with each dialogue presenting a new challenge to his integrity, we gain new and vital insight into what makes this kind of person tick and the effect it has on those who depend on him.
To aide with that character study, our focus turns to the main belligerents; Troy’s wife Rose and son Cory. While not featured as heavily as perhaps they should be, behind the purpose of using them to test Troy’s resolve are two living, breathing characters; each with their own imperfections, worries and limits. The audience will rally behind them, but ultimately may be let down as Rose and Cory make their own decisions regardless of opportunity or moral high ground. No one is faultless and no one is above the story being told; the characters are fully immersed, and that’s all the more important when the rest of the story occasionally forgets to be.
While the exploration of the characters can be absolutely absorbing, at times the dialogue tries too hard in setting up its narrative bowling pins. Troy loves his wife, he speaks openly about her sexiness, how he can only be satisfied with her; arguably, perhaps he’s trying desperately to cover up accusations of infidelity from Bono, but the intent never registers, and he plays it up when no one’s watching in a later scene, having this read simply out of character or, more cynically, like a writer trying to trick us for a surprise twist later.
On the other lesser hand, a somewhat religious overtone to the final scene in a narrative that only briefly namechecks Christianity as a character trait at the very beginning and only faintly exists as a theme in the background feels unwarranted and unsatisfying, and while some characters benefit from subtlety in their role, like estranged son Lyons and best friend Bono, mentally-impaired brother Gabriel gets a significant portion of screentime and even fleeting plays in our understanding of Troy and his upbringing, but unfortunately is mostly used as a sad dramatic tool to keep the plot moving on dead halts and, bizarrely, to postpone perhaps the most important conversation in the film. It’s cheap dramatic guff, and only builds frustration when we ought to be tense.
Still, the choice to keep the feel of the stage play by limiting locations and expresses more the angles and shapes of the rooms the characters are in works, and the occasional break in locations feel warranted (although likely to infuriate structural purists). The emphasis on character and performance does open the film wide-open to its blemishes, but for the most part it holds up, and has much to say about this kind of person.
As far as enjoyment goes, this isn’t an easy recommendation for everyone, but for those willing to put in the time to see some great acting and perhaps learn something about the narcissists of the world, it’s an easy sell.