PG-13. I think I am genuinely surprised. PG-13 has come to mean "not great" or "not challenging." This movie is genuinely challenging. I'll have to watch it again so I can point out any R-Rated content...
DIRECTOR: Denzel Washington
I really wanted this to be my movie for the year. I saw the trailer probably six months ago and I almost needed this to be my movie for the year. Looking at the cast and the fact that August Wilson's play was finally going to be a film, directed by Denzel? C'mon. I'd love preaching that to everyone. I hate to get into my evaluation so soon, but the movie isn't...great? That might be completely unfair to this movie because the movie is really good. It is an actor's ropes course and just looks like it is ripping the hearts out of these people. But this movie needed to be more than just really good because it has the potential to be something truly special. I think back to Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire and I know that certain plays can permeate the culture's consciousness. Fences, I think, has the potential to do that. The problem with Washington's film adaptation is that it is depending too much on its source material.
The movie comes across as a play very quickly. Like Casablanca, the movie uses the same locations for most of the film. But where Casablanca relies on action and clearly established beats, Washington tries to use the same charm that makes the play work in film. It is dependent on the back-and-forth repartee of the characters. I suppose that matches reality. Discussions last a while and emotions get high in those moments. The only problem is that shot/reverse-shot gets a little dull after a while. With a stage production, the characters must make the stage into their playground. Characters draw focus through movement and choices and a shot/reverse shot, weirdly, actually limits what the audience can see. Instead of seeing poetry through movement, the limiting camera almost shoves my face into the important part instead of allowing the character earn that. The shame is that everyone in this movie is strong enough to hold his or her own. The direct translation from the play doesn't really work here. I can't even blame him. August Wilson's play is considered a classic at this point. It seems sacrilege to tamper with his work too much. With the other works, they were almost contemporaries with the original works. They had no outside awareness of the importance of what they were changing. Sometimes change isn't a bad thing.
As I mentioned, the performances are what really sell this movie. Let me say this clearly right now because it is going to sound like I'm crapping on him in a second: I liked Washington's portrayal quite a bit. But here's the "but." Denzel Washington might be the casting choice of the group. Viola Davis is always phenomenal. I don't think I've once been let down by her, even if she's been in a weaker movie. (I'm looking at you, Suicide Squad.) She always brings an intensity, but doesn't really settle for "intense" as a character choice. Fences gives her absolutely sublime moments of joy and love to balance the pain the character carries with her. She is injured emotionally, but she doesn't play that. We know it through her choices and like people who are injured, so does a phenomenal job hiding it. That is powerful and I give her a standing ovation for her choices. I think the theme for this year's Oscars is "kids I'm not familiar with who knock my socks off." Manchester by the Sea has one. I hear the kid from Lion is going to destroy me. Fences has Jovan Adepo. Man, this kid knows his character choices and subtlety. Mind you, it takes a good director to bring out a good performance, so I might have to give Denzel Washington some credit after all, but Adepo knows how to hold his own with people who could be emotional bullies. He knows his balance. He sees his character's nobility and balances it out with teenage pride and frustration. That's so awesome. I love this kind of stuff.
Okay, I take it back. Mykelti Williamson I thought was too safe a choice for Gabriel. He does a fine job and my heart breaks for him, but it was far too close to Bubba for a character to really see any stretch there.
I'd like to talk about Denzel Washington and his dual role as a director and actor. When Denzel first showed up on the scene, he made some bold acting choices and they all worked. He is an intense actor who can command a scene and draw the viewer into the world. That is the actor's primary role and he does it well. The problem I'm seeing with him is that I'm not seeing Variety. His happy moments are always tainted with the tinge of grossness. He hates his characters and sees them for the villains they are. We are sickened by characters like Troy because we're supposed to be. But because Denzel keeps doing this with all of his characters, there is little to make Troy Maxton special. He's a variation of the dozens of other unlikable characters that Washington has played in the past. Troy Maxton needed to make us love him before we grew to hate him. He has glimpses of that in Fences, but every time I see a vulnerable character, some wall comes up and we are brought back to a place of distrust. Maxton is a complicated character. He is a man who keeps doing horrible things to his family time and time again, but he thinks he has a good reason for the things he does. It is our role as audience members to judge Troy's actions, not Washington's to tell us that this character is unlikable. Maxton should believe that he's doing the right thing. That speech he gives about laughing and deserving to laugh is telling about his internal conflict. But Washington has already painted his character out be a jerk, even in the happy moments. It's a fine line to walk as an actor and perhaps, if he wasn't directing himself, someone would have caught him and guided him somewhere else.
Again, the movie is good. I'll even say it is really good. But it lacks the greatness that will make it a classic. And I really wanted a classic.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.