Earnest Ed, still serious about the world and its brutalities in his 98th year, lurched into my room one morning waving the Fences DVD. “We have to watch this!” he said, which made my heart crash. Ed is one of those types who trigger demand for defibrillators. He waxes tedious on avant-garde theatre, surrealist painting, iconoclastic movie-making, and every nerve-shredding tweet, ting or clannnnggggggg Philip Glass ever made. He hobbled away, having made a date at me to watch this film. Caught in a moment of airless doom, I’d agreed. And three days later, the other inmates winking and waving behind his back and zimmering for freedom, old Jack and Earnest Ed sat down to watch Fences.
Its a domestic drama, full of words and more words, about Troy Maxson, a rubbish collector in 1950s’ Pittsburgh, and the prison without bars he constructs for himself and his family. There’s a moment in the film where he admits the urge to reduce the world to make it endurable…which sums up the film, its metaphor and the damage he does. He is a man dealing with the maddening failures of middle-age. So that ought to ring a bell, then.
Denzel Washington plays Troy and directs the film. It is beautifully shot, spending most of the time in Troy’s back yard (where he is building the fence of metaphor and fact) and occasionally his house. This limitation made the movie massively hard to watch for old Jack: it’s a theatre play on film, not a movie. Also, it is one of those wretched-America stories that test the patience by teasing out a sense of despair and making you hate the lead character. I wouldn’t be surprised if Willy Loman lived across the street. Not that Troy – continually fostering a mirage around his own failures – would notice the Death of a Salesman.
Troy’s story emerges in fits and starts, and is difficult for everyone. His father beat him until he beat the old man back, he had a son then disappeared into prison for fifteen years, he met Rose (the astonishing Viola Davis) and had a second son and 18 years of marriage with her. For such a torn-up and bullying man he is plainly rich in the positives of life. But he has the demon in him: challenging his oldest boy, a musician with his own disappointments, and attacking his second for daring to try to please him. The sins of the grandfather echo loudly…and who hasn’t caught themselves in a moment of actualising at the expense of your kids’ self-worth? Eh? Eh?
Old Jack was ready to give up after most of an hour, or at least demand Ed gets some doughnuts and quit with the eulogising, but then the film turned. And sharply. For Troy has a secret and the moment has come to wreck Rose’s life…
A bit like in The Judge, Fences has moments where the leads are taken off the leash. The screenplay (written by the original play’s author, August Wilson, and honoured by Washington given he died in 2005) lets rip with terrific duologues about life, hopes and sticking together. For Rose has a life too, and the bombshell that Troy has been unfaithful and a child is coming…well, boom. The middle-age blether gets called. A lesson for us all, perhaps. Cowards are never much older than 15 when it comes to honesty and bullshitting through repercussions.
Davis is amazing. She takes Rose though flirty wifeliness, scared mother (of Troy’s words at her boys…there are so many) to the most spectacularly bone-deep angry woman. Her rage flips the film. Events play in her favour – Troy loses at life, then things get worse – and a couple of time-jumps accelerate what is too decent to be called revenge. But Davis carries it with looks, tears and spectacular erudition.
Earnest Ed was enthusing throughout, so I told him I found the film sapping and meaningless. Domestic pap with a few too many caricatures playing second fiddle. He took offence and stormed out of the TV room, hopefully never to trap me like this again. But, hush now, for Fences is a powerful film made by powerful actors. It is way too stagey for my liking, the accents and American slang call for sub-titles for the British ear, but those moments when courtesy drops and Washington and Davis let rip…brilliant.
Watch Fences for a bit of class, misery and a painful lesson in bullying.
Get thee to iTunes.