Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review — Fences (2016)
I went and looked at Mike Nichols’ debut film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? recently for its fiftieth anniversary, not having seen it since I was in high school, and I was floored by how immediate, how tense, how alive the whole enterprise feels from beginning to end… especially for a film released in the mid-1960s, and particularly since it’s based on a play. Stage plays can have terrific adaptations for the screen, and I’ve liked or loved most of them I’ve seen. Glengarry Glen Ross, Closer, Frost / Nixon, Rabbit Hole.
I would say my favorites are the ones that don’t necessarily feel like plays, that feel like a handful of characters barking lines at each other in one space for ninety minutes, but as a cinematic experience that just so happens to feature lots of dialogue in a few specific spaces. I watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and don’t think stage play, I think great movie. August: Osage County I still have my problems with, but at least director John Wells opens up the space to allow his actors to roam and not be shoved down against any one table or room.
As much as I enjoyed the film Fences, directed by Denzel Washington, and starring Washington and Davis in the lead roles, I found myself in this one especially aware that I was watching a movie that originated as a play. Washington wisely opens on a scene that opens up the world of his character’s neighborhood, showing him as a sanitary worker going about his daily routine, trying to find happiness in a staid existence. But then we arrive at his home and enter his backyard, his wife greets him with a kiss, we have a long scene of dialogue out back as the sun starts going down, and I start thinking, play. This isn’t a major criticism of the film, as there’s lots to love and certainly moments of power in its (overlong) two-hour-and-fifteen-minute running time. But I do feel director Washington could have opened this movie up more, showed us more of the town, gone out of his way occasionally to give us a more cinematic experience.
The film takes place in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, where Troy (Washington) is trying to make the best life he can for his wife Rose (Davis) and his teenage son Cory (a terrific Jovan Adepo). He believes in hard work and not allowing Cory or his adult son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) to skate by on laziness or on something as improbable as a football scholarship. When Cory begs his father to let him play football, Troy demands that he keep his job or he’ll personally go to the school and drop him from the team. We find out that Troy himself had a shot at a sports career but it didn’t pan out for him and so he’s likely taking his anger out on his son.
More anger arises when Lyons wants to borrow money from his father, wants him to believe in his career as a musician. Troy can’t believe he has boys who don’t want a trade job, something that can put food on the table and support a family, and he doesn’t think Rose helps when she coddles the boys and never stops believing in them. Rose loves her husband and has always loved him, but that love is put to the test when Troy reveals something that even she may not be able to forgive.
Fences is most powerful when tensions arise and strong actors go up each against other like lions in a cage. The earlier moments of Troy going on and on about his wisdom and life lessons can feel too preachy, but when the big gasp-worthy twist is revealed about an hour into the movie, the pacing quickens and the film finally finds a good rhythm. Washington has been a consistently great actor going back thirty years, but only occasionally lately does he take a challenging role on film, and his performance in Fences marks probably his best work of the last ten years. He allows himself to be an ass, a jerk, someone with mental demons that have in no way diminished over the years. His character talks a bit too much at times, to the point where, again, I was noticing the stage play aspects of this material, but he has astonishing moments of sadness and regret toward the end that I won’t soon forget.
The star of this film though, no matter what anyone may say, is Viola Davis. I have been in awe of her ever since that one earth-shattering scene she shared with Meryl Streep in Doubt, and I and most of the world I think have been big fans of hers ever since. I loved her in The Help, and I watch How To Get Away With Murder religiously despite how silly it gets every season, because Davis is one of those rare actors who is always fascinating to watch. Even if she’s not talking. Even if all she does in a scene is give another character a telling glance.
And even when she’s in the background in Fences, Troy mouthing off another story to his buddy as she looks on, she’s the one I’m interested in most. Here’s a character that’s been married for eighteen years to a borderline abusive personality and she’s taken it, lived with it, never questioned it, tried to find peace inside herself with that decision she made all that time ago. When she learns of something her husband did and finally breaks down, unable to hold in her emotion any longer, Davis delivers one of the most fiery and honest powerhouse acting moments I’ve seen in a film in years.
Fences is a terrific film well-worth seeing. Despite my misgivings with the staginess of some of the scenes — that backyard set not only gets tiresome after two hours, but it actually looks like a set at times, especially when Washington refuses to do much with the camera but simply point it at the actors — the talent level of the actors and the terrific dialogue and the not one but two big twists in the movie make this a great watch.
Watching Like a Writer
Fences made me think about how to write a short story or novel that features many, many scenes of dialogue in the same setting. At least half of the scenes in Fences take place in the tiny backyard of Troy’s house, where he muses about life, gets in fights with his son, goes off on his wife when she doesn’t support him. If I were to write a series of scenes in one setting, how would I keep it fresh and interesting? How would I make sure the reader doesn’t ever get claustrophobic?
Think of a short story idea that takes place entirely in the main character’s backyard. Who would the protagonist be? What would happen in this specific setting?