Rated PG-13, 139 minutes
There's no doubt about it, the superbly acted, powerhouse new drama "Fences," based on the acclaimed August Wilson, Tony Award-winning play, packs an emotional wallop. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington on a script from the late Wilson (who completed it before his death in 2005), it occasionally feels a little too stagey and tailored for Oscar glory, but there's no denying the fantastic performances from Washington and Viola Davis as the leads.
Now working as a garbage collector in 1950s Pittsburgh, Troy (Washington), a hardened former baseball star, struggles to provide for his family and creates tension when he squashes his son Cory's (Jovan Adepo) dream of playing football, not to mention revealing some secrets he's been keeping from his devoted, sensible wife Rose (Davis). All the while, Troy's been trying to build a fence around his house to keep things secure, but he senses he's losing his grip as he grows older.
The talky but superbly drawn, powerful "Fences" is a moving portrait of the African-American experience in the 1950's, brought to life in a big way from Washington and Davis, both of whom won Tony's for the 2010 revival on Broadway and will receive further acclaim from the film version. For those familiar with Wilson's play, it's a faithful adaptation, with some details changed but its relevant monologues and dialogue stay intact, becoming the memorable, emotional centerpieces of the film.
With that in mind, Washington is successful at bringing Wilson's play to the screen, though the clear challenge is to not lose the intimacy from the stage while retaining its identity. "Fences," with a good piece of its dialogue remaining, it's more successful at the latter than the former; with long stretches of dialogue, it occasionally feels a little stagey, though Washington and Davis certainly give it their all, to the point you feel they're appealing to Oscar voters.
Still, Davis in particular is excellent, and while she should be in the lead category, the move to the supporting category is a strategic move for sure and she's all but the shoo-in; she's toe-to-toe with Washington in every scene, and her emotional, tear-filled monologue late in the film is not only one of the film's best scenes, it could finally bring her home an Oscar, and it'd be a deserving one if she did win.
Hard-headed, stubborn and tough, Washington carries "Fences" and it's one of his best roles to date as he enters in the latter stages of his career. With "Fences," he could transition to more character-driven material in the same manner that Clint Eastwood did with "Unforgiven," which would be a great move for him. He's still a better actor than director, but he shines here with the material and cast; Washington is also well-supported by the warm, charming Stephen Henderson (also from the 2010 revival) as his friend Bono, newcomer Adepo as Troy's son, Mykelti Williamson ("Forrest Gump") as Troy's mentally challenged brother Gabe, and "Grimm's" Russell Hornsby as his older son Lyons from a previous relationship.
Wilson's ambitious tale covers a lot of ground: family relationships, racial themes, marriage and growing older, with the title an allegory of the insecurity we feel as age. Unforgettable, moving and featuring two powerhouse turns by two of today's best actors, the winning "Fences" is a must-see.