I had two Best Picture contenders left to see this past weekend. The conventional wisdom holds that Fences is a sure winner in at least one of Oscar's acting categories, so that tipped the balance for me.
Fences is an adaptation of August Wilson's famous stage play (a multiple award winner in its own right). Set in the 1950s, it's the tale of Troy Maxson, a man of 53 who is haunted and embittered by a past he never got to live -- though he was a gifted baseball player in his younger days, Jackie Robinson had not yet come along to break the color barrier in the major league. Now he works as a garbage collector to provide for a family he alternately loves and resents, and makes fresh mistakes in an attempt to carve out his own identity.
This movie adaptation is essentially committing to film a famous 2010 Broadway revival of the play. The cast from Broadway was brought back for the most part, and it's a heavy-hitting list for stage or screen. Headlining the cast is Denzel Washington, who also directs the movie. Viola Davis plays his wife, and her winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar this coming Sunday is the surest bet you could place. Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson also revive their Broadway roles.
Yet I'm not sure it's a good thing that so much of the Broadway cast was retained. A performance modulated for the back row of a theater is a very different thing from a performance meant to be projected on a thirty foot screen. Very few actors can do both well. And while some of the performers here could absolutely make that list, their familiarity with and reverence for this material may be working against them. These actors are reciting words they repeated 8 times a week for weeks on end. And as Denzel Washington himself has stressed in multiple interviews, the driving force of this film was to be faithful to August Wilson's original.
The resulting film is quite difficult to settle into. The performances are loud and boisterous, the personalities of the characters dialed up a notch or two beyond pure realism. The delivery of the highly stylized dialogue is often at a machine gun pace, almost overlapping and rarely (at least in the first hour) giving the audience a chance to really process what's being said. It's almost as though the movie is assuming an audience as familiar as the performers with Wilson's writing. It's exhausting to keep up, and that's on top of the emotional exhaustion that's key to the narrative itself.
I won't fault Viola Davis her Oscar win here. She's great in general, and absolutely the best performer here. Plus, while her Oscar reel will no doubt highlight her big "ugly crying" scene in this movie, she also gives the most nuanced and layered of all the performances. There's more to it than just that "Oscar please" scene.
But the rest of the movie feels more like a chore. Troy is an ultimately unlikable character, with any sympathy he might be due buried beneath a myopic entitlement. The bad things other characters say about him ring more true than the good things he says about himself. And the hurricane (or at least, tropical storm) of misery he kicks up around him doesn't ultimately reveal much of interest. It's a slice of life story that I think may be too familiar to too many people to be either entertaining or illuminating.