Fences is a compelling movie, with towering performances from each of its actors. Adapted by August Wilson from his play of the same name, it tells the tale of an African-American refuse collector, Troy Maxson, and is a searing indictment of the American Dream. The film wears its theatrical origins with pride; there’s little attempt here to render the claustrophobic domestic story more cinematic: we rarely venture beyond Troy’s half-fenced yard.
Denzel Washington is Troy, a Willy Loman-esque character, reflecting bitterly on a lifetime of thwarted ambitions and unrealised dreams. Indeed, the whole piece is very reminiscent of Death of a Salesman, and just as unflinching in its exposure of the fallacies we are sold. Washington’s performance is stunning: Troy is just about as flawed as a man can be – he’s selfish, demanding, dictatorial and often wrong – but we are always aware of the insecurities that drive him; we can always see the vulnerability that lurks beneath the brute. We might not like him, but he has our sympathy.
Viola Davis is equally irresistible, exuding depth and dignity; the characterisation here is impeccable. Powerless to protect her son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), from his father’s injustice, she nevertheless holds up a mirror to her errant husband, and doesn’t let him shy away from the truth of who he is. When Troy betrays her, her anguish is palpable – but so is her love. And it’s this love, I think, that holds the piece together, and redeems Troy – sort of – in the end.
Denzel Washington’s direction is confident and assured. The film builds slowly towards the inevitable tragedy at its heart and, for the most part, this pace works well. I felt the last half hour dragged a little, with perhaps too much crammed in to what is essentially a coda – but overall, there’s not much to complain of here. It’s a fascinating, well-told, cautionary tale. The Oscar nomination is very well-deserved.