Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 2016. Bron Studios, Escape Artists, MACRO, Paramount Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions. Screenplay by August Wilson, based on his play. Cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Produced by Todd Black, Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington. Music by Marcelo Zarvos. Production Design by David Gropman. Costume Design by Sharen Davis. Film Editing by Hughes Winborne. Academy Awards 2016. Golden Globe Awards 2016. Washington Film Critics Awards 2016.
A garbage collector in 1950s Pittsburgh comes home every day to a loving wife and a teenage son, dispensing tough love and harsh wisdom on both while constantly harping on the need to fix the fences around his property’s yard; the fences, it turns out, are both literal and metaphorical, the boundaries of his property also referring to the boundaries of ambition, fear and the question of whether we are keeping bad stuff out or hemming good stuff in. His son wants to play football but Troy (Denzel Washington, who also directed) has bad memories of failing in athletics which he attributes to the racism of his time but which, through conversations with his patient but fiery wife (Viola Davis, who is riveting) turns out to be only partly true. Through dealings with his wife and son, his older son from a different marriage plus his best friend (Stephen Henderson), we watch a man who is as much the perpetrator of his life as he is its victim, his attempt to make himself invulnerable to the disappointments and devastation of adulthood eventually alienating those around him. Washington gives a powerhouse performance in a role that lets him hold court on screen for almost the entire thing, and it’s a full pleasure to behold. He’s an actor who is not obsessed with his own showy techniques that beg you to appreciate the work, so having him rail on for two and a half hours never chafes on the ear, while the heightened theatricality of the dialogue, which has been expertly adapted by August Wilson from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is served by the performances. It takes place mostly in a backyard and a kitchen but has a connection to the great dramas dating back to Shakespeare, both for the grandeur of its theme (a tragic hero with a tragic flaw) and the narrow conventions of gender (men are in conflict with ideas, women are in conflict with men) that seem to remain the same. It is obviously adapted from the stage, movies demand show and don’t tell and plays are the opposite and there is no attempt to do anything about this here, but the film is rightly confident that such great writing and acting allow for it to wear its theatrical tradition proudly on its sleeve.