Robust, delicate, sublimely acted and a close cinematic cousin to the theatrical original, director Denzel Washington's film version of "Fences" makes up for a lot of overeager or undercooked stage-to-screen adaptations over the decades.
The performances of Washington, Viola Davis and their colleagues offer something more than mere skill or easy familiarity with August Wilson's 1987 drama. (Washington and Davis won Tony Awards for their work in the 2010 Broadway revival.) Even as Wilson's 1957-set story, full of sidewinding grace notes and rhetorical flourishes, grows darker, sadder, more painful, the acting exhilarates. The people in charge, on screen and off, know what they have here, and they don't get material like this very often in their careers.
Wilson, who won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes for "Fences," was a poet turned playwright, with one foot in realism and the other in what lies beyond. The story of the Maxson family owes little to the plot-driven likes of Arthur Miller; it's dominated by long passages of unusually rich, rolling dialogue and monologue.
"Fences" deals with the contradictions and conflicts within Troy Maxson, an ex-convict whose life has, in Wilson's phrase, "rubbed him raw." The onetime Negro League baseball hopeful now hauls garbage for the city of Pittsburgh, and the play (and the film) stays close to his house and backyard, though there are a few shrewdly opened-up scenes taking place on the truck, in a tavern and the like.
This husband and father finds himself at a tipping point. Troy risks his wife's trust and his domestic stability, while stubbornly preventing his high school-age son (Jovan Adepo, excellent), also an athlete, from having his heart broken by a sport he loves.
Davis is spectacularly good as Rose, Troy's wife, who takes an increasingly prominent role in the drama. Other sterling members of the 2010 revival ensemble reprise their roles for Washington's third directorial feature. Stephen Henderson is Troy's longtime friend and co-worker Bono, in thrall to Troy's yarn-spinning but concerned about his fidelity; Russell Hornsby stops by a couple of juicy scenes as Lyons, Troy's wastrel son from a previous marriage. Mykelti Williamson is Troy's brother, Gabriel, badly injured in World War II (the settlement money paid for the Maxson's house, a fact Troy cannot resolve without a headful of guilt).
The glory of "Fences" cannot be separated from what makes it difficult to pull off. Troy's a marvelously thorny protagonist, and there are moments in his downward spiral when Washington is reaching down into some very tough and personal places. (The line "I can't taste nuthin'" is a brilliant moment.) When Rose must respond to the one thing she feared in her life with Troy, Davis lets him have it with everything she has as a truthful, fearless actress.
Most times, a film adaptation of a traditionally structured play takes dutiful, sideways steps to fix certain things, bringing offstage characters (the woman named Alberta, in this case) on screen. Not here, at least not much. Washington's only real misstep as director, I think, comes in the eternally problematic epilogue, where we get a boatload of forgiveness for Troy that's largely but not fully earned, capped by a heavenly reaction shot (literally, of the heavens) that feels pushy. If the camera had stayed on the faces of the characters, no problem. Small matters. With astute and uncredited cutting and tweaking by producer Tony Kushner, "Fences" works as a showcase for its towering lead performances and, just as crucially, as proof that the joyous cadence of Wilson's best writing works in more than one medium.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references).
Running time: 2:17