Powerful performances can't keep Fences from feeling a little stagey.
The term "passion project" is usually thrown around when a filmmaker tries to make something near and dear to them, but doesn't quite achieve the success they'd hoped for. Fences clearly meets the first half of that definition, with Denzel Washington directing and starring in a stage-to-screen adaptation of the play he previously won a Tony award for on Broadway. With the aid of his co-star Viola Davis, who also follows the project from the theatre to film, Washington crafts a picture full of commanding lead performances and blistering drama. And yet, like so many passion projects, it's never quite everything that it could be.
Just why that's the case is apparent from the outset, when Pittsburgh garbage collector Troy (Washington) returns home on a Friday afternoon with both his pay packet and a bottle of gin in his hand. The working week is over, and so he's jovial, tipsy, talkative, and cheekily playing up for his dutiful wife Rose (Davis) and his long term friend and work colleague Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). It's the type of performance-centric opening scene designed to make an impact, and in a theatre it would certainly cause an immediate splash. On film, it simply offers the first of many reminders of the movie's origins on the stage.
In a script written by the late August Wilson based on his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Troy unleashes his thoughts, problems and memories upon Rose, their teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), his first son from a previous relationship Lyons (Russell Hornsby) and his brother (Mykelti Williamson). He wants to become a driver, while Cory yearns to pursue a football career against his father's wishes, and Rose remains suffering but still poised in the middle. The more Troy talks as time passes, the more revelations are in store. Slowly, his bravado and bluster fades. The almost constant chatter continues, only quieter, with the characters weighed down by their mounting troubles.
If that sounds like a whole lot of arguing, that's because Fences doesn't shy away from the spoken word. The script serves the film's cast well, and each player delivers their lines with passion and conviction. Above all else, this is an actor's showcase. Washington perfects the transformation from confident to wearied, while Davis charts the opposite trajectory. The space where they collide is the place where pride is undone, legacies are shattered, hearts are broken, and racial and socio-economic truths are exposed. Distilling all of that into their performances, it's almost enough just to watch them circle around each other for 139 minutes. Of course, the key word there is almost.
As a filmmaker, Washington obviously believes in the strength of the scenario and the acting it inspires. In a way, that's the problem, since it means his direction ends up feeling rather stagey. Given that the film's characters are both fenced in and trying to burst beyond their confines, a sense of constraint comes with the territory. And yet, for all its attempts at intimacy, the end result still keeps viewers at a distance. Fences feels more like a great play captured on camera, rather than a great movie in its own right.