Denzel Washington delivers a volcanic performance in his latest directorial effort, Fences, while the magnificent Viola Davis counters with her own blistering piece of internalized acting; the two artists literally explode off of the screen. Efficiently directed by Washington, the film was adapted for the screen by playwright August Wilson, whose original, Pulitzer-winning effort was performed on Broadway by both of the leads. It’s a story about unfulfilled potential and shattered dreams and how anger can run its way through a person in a variety of ways; the manner in which Washington projects inner resentment and regret is astounding. Playing a former Negro Leagues slugger who never made it to the majors for a variety of reasons, Washington is the ultra-commanding backbone to the narrative, which pivots on the relationships he has with his wife of 18 years (Davis), his two sons (Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby, both excellent) by different mothers, his mentally challenged and war-scarred brother (Mykelti Williamson, superb in a tricky role), and his best friend, played with sagaciousness by Stephen McKinley Henderson. The bravura performances from everyone in the tightly-knit cast easily cements Fences as one of the strongest pieces of purely dramatic storytelling from 2016.
Hughes Winborne’s well-paced editing is a study of when not to cut, just as much as it is of when to cut; I can’t imagine sitting in the editing bay watching these actors for various weeks, trying to decide which take to use. Because this entire film is built upon its galvanizing performances, to cut too soon or too late would be to rob the piece of various emotional impact moments; there’s also extra-smart use of reaction shots all throughout. In tandem with the crisp and clean cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, Fences feels polished and graceful, while the restrictive setting definitely keeps the picture feeling like a filmed play, and yet is incredibly evocative of time and place. Washington feels totally enmeshed in this character, unafraid to go to some very dark and unlikable places as an actor, while the story never lets anyone off the hook; for better or worse, you are what you make of yourself in the world that Fences presents. It might not be a film I’ll be able to revisit over and over again, but it’s a piece of work that lingers, demanding attention and respect. Producer Scott Rudin also worked on the stage production, while Tony Kushner apparently helped to craft the screenplay, but only received a co-producing credit.