Let me start off by saying Fences is absolutely much more a play than an movie. It plays much into its own theatrical elements to bring anything remotely cinematic to table, and for that I found myself judging it differently than had I seen the live production instead. Unlike Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea, Viola Davis refreshingly shines through a series of show-stopping moments. During one such moment, a section of the audience was enthusiastically applauding, while in another a woman two rows behind me blurted out uncontrollably, “I love this woman!” as her embarrassed husband tugged back on her ever so gently. She lays herself bare, the only member of the cast who felt like she was acting in a movie rather than performing something merely studied, rehearsed and performed. The rest of the actors ham it up Broadway-style, and performed with unnatural calculation. I think it was a big mistake to bring the Broadway cast over for the production’s on-screen adaptation, as their skillset translated awkwardly on the Hollywood screen. It was not merely that the direction lacked nuance, but most of the actors themselves were portrayed with neither subtlety nor humanity. Most of came across as bare archetypes and one-dimensional, aside from the two leading characters. Each supporting performance fell short. It is bizarre that a few pundits teasing a brother with mental deficiencies could somehow land awards buzz. What a very lazy assumption. The brother’s performance moves and feels straight off the stage, performed like glowing caricature. Henderson is probably the only one that did not totally bother me completely, but something still felt faulty about his performance overall. Viola Davis is as heart-wrenching as the sympathetic safeguard to Washington, who throws back her own waiting around and lost freedoms willowing away in the background. She gives by far the most humanistically-grounded performance of anyone, possessing just the right amount of gravitas, sympathy and inner-strength. She is the one character for whom you root and love. Despite the contempt she and her son have in their heart for him from Washington’s betrayals towards the end, she protects his image because it is important for her son to have respect for the man that put a roof over his head. The unwavering sacrifices he made for his family and the love he had for his son, whether he cared to openly admit it or not.
Fences is a fairly straightforward motion picture and resonates well across many audiences, but Washington lets go of traditional director tendencies altogether and allows the script and performances to speak for themselves. There’s no aesthetic flair or great showmanship anywhere (a few small directorial moments with the moving camera that I guess couldn’t be captured in the play). I do not think this will get very strong reviews; universal acclaim itself would flabbergast me. I would not be totally shocked if this only ended up in the mid-high 60’s on Metacritic. Not a single tech from this movie stands a shot: Not the mediocre production design (much of the movie takes place on the same set), nor the dull editing, nor the cheap, schlocky score that I vehemently disliked, and certainly not the lackluster costumes.
Now, Denzel Washington will likely receive high marks from most critics, but I personally did not like his performance. He plays the character as if he is delivering dialogue straight from a play, rather than organically for a movie. Never did I buy his descent to self-destruction. In fact, I felt his entire presentation of his character to be unconvincing. He is always moody and capital A-acting, thus leaves little breathing room between scenes. His characters is one-note, and I found it exhausting. Moments of any lightness or charisma re lost outside of warm marital moments in the beginning, and conversations between him and a friend. Basically, during the whole movie, Denzel plays a grumbly and disgruntled figure, agitated with just about everyone in his life other than his wife and a dear friend. Then, there is an act of martial betrayal by the character, that on one level is refreshing because it is finally a blunt moment, and his character responds so bravely and candidly after being convinced to come forward, but once revealed, the story quickly loses grip and in turn becomes full-blown melodrama. I also felt the third act moved much too quickly, never myself able to completely process the familial defunctness. Washington’s character starts off as a hard working-class ex-con everyman with a compassionate backstory and was able to turn his life around, but remains endlessly dissatisfied with himself, while also unwilling to change. The psyche of his own character slowly implodes after his life falls apart and values are defunct. He becomes nothing more than a wildly dislikable character, who does reproachable things. After his son understandably lies and disrespects his authority, Denzel’s character destroys his life and ambitions. He becomes an adulterer, an alcoholic, abusive, and ultimately a crazed deplorable man for whom I felt no sympathy, for unlike Casey Affleck, who I believe has a lot more going for him. Especially because Affleck is out out there campaigning (Denzel absent from the Governor’s awards) and his movie should end up a much stronger Best Picture contender in the race than Fences will. [C+]
Prediction possibilities (in descending order):
01. Best Supporting Actress
02. Best Actor
03. Best Adapted Screenplay
04. Best Picture (I guess the actors could push it in)