An Acting Paradise and Not Much Else
This is an interesting movie to critique. On the one hand, it has terrific acting and writing. Both Viola Davis and Denzel Washington put in great, Oscar-worthy performances in what is certainly shaping up to be a strong, strong year for acting. There is also some terrific writing to go along with it. This film is based off a play of the same name, and the writer of said play also came in and wrote an excellent screenplay for the film adaptation. However, while this film excels in these two departments, it is sorely lacking in almost every other field, as its biggest problem is that it, well, feels like a play.
Let's star with the good. I've let this simmer for a day or two, and I'm glad I did. Because the more I think about it, the more I realize this is the Viola Davis show. She delivers an emotional and gut-wrenching performance, one which is almost surely going to net her an Oscar nomination, and pretty much out-performers her male co-star, Denzel Washington. And this isn't meant to take away from Washington: he too is outstanding in the lead role, though he does tend to talk an AWFUL lot. It's good dialogue, but man the sheer amount of dialogue in this movie reminds me a lot of Jesse Eisenburg from The Social Network. (Which is still one of my favorite movies of the past decade so putting it in this review is certainly a good thing.) While there's a lot of dialogue, I was still sucked in because it's all good dialogue. That's a hard thing to do for sure, but all of Washington's stories and all his exchanges with the rest of the cast were more than worthwhile. They did what they were supposed to do-paint a picture of a working-class black man trying to get by in the 1950s-and Washington (who also directed the film) certainly created a picture of a man that was full of surprises. This film is about the journey Washington's character takes to get by when the deck is stacked against him, but it's also just as much about Viola Davis's journey as well. I was also impressed by how this film really stressed to emphasize the covert racism that was alive and well in the 1950s, and it painted a pretty chilling parallel to covert racism today. That was likely one of main points of writer August Wilson, and in this part he certainly hit it out of the park.
That said, this film is not without faults. Remember before when I was talking about the stories Washington told? Well, this was also a missed opportunity on the film's part. Why didn't we actually see Washington's stories play out in front of us? That would've been far more effective than simply hearing him tell us about it. Too many events in this film take place off-screen, and as a result it really feels like you're watching a play. I get that it's based off a play, but there's also no reason to take liberties that you can't take on a stage. Like showing us things that are happening in the film instead of simply telling us about them. I must also pick on the erratic editing and cinematography. There really wasn't any rhyme or reason to either of these: one scene we'd have a two and a half minute long take, the next scene there would be twenty cuts in the same length of time. A couple times the camera would focus on Washington when it should be focusing on Viola Davis-she'd be delivery a heartbreaking performance and yet the film feels the need to show us how Washington is taking it, which was irritating. That said, there is an over-the-shoulder (of Washington) shot of Davis that is simply devastating and will certainly be used in every acting reel of her as she goes through the awards circuit. But the overall uncertainty within the editing and cinematography department was distracting to me.
However, those two faults are not enough to bring down this otherwise almost great film. It will certainly be discussed more as awards season gets into full gear, and nominating Viola Davis for Best Supporting Actress (even though she was defiinitely a co-star, it looks like Paramount is touting her as a supporting actress so she has a better shot at winning) will be an EASY way for the Oscars to not have to worry about #OscarsSoWhite episode 3. Expect to hear this film's name again as award season progresses, guys.
The Critique: Despite some erratic editing and cinematography and an overall too-intimate setting, Fences is certainly one of 2016's great acting films thanks to standout performances from Viola Davis and Denzel Washington.
The Recommendation: If you like Denzel or Viola, then this is an absolute must-see. I would also say see it regardless, especially if you're a history buff or fascinated by 1950's America.
The Verdict: 7.5/10 Almost Great (felt this film deserved a rare .5 score-it's better than good but not quite great)
Oscar Talk: There are easy nominations for acting here for Viola Davis (at least) and possibly Denzel Washington. I also wouldn't be surprised to see this film sneak in a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. However I don't expect much else.