There's a lot to admire about Fences, the film adaptation of August Wilson's seminal play directed by (and starring) Denzel Washington.
Wilson's inimitable dialogue remains bracingly whole, thanks to Washington using the late playwright's own screenplay. The ensemble is top-notch, mixing skilled veterans (Stephen Henderson) with younger performers (Jovan Adepo). At its core, this story — an exploration of family and black masculinity that pairs perfectly with Moonlight — deserves to be seen on film.
Yet truthfully, there are two major reasons why Fences isn't a great film. First, the adaptation struggles a bit to escape its theatrical stateliness; this doesn't feel like a movie so much as a filmed play.
Second, Viola Davis gives such a towering performance that the rest of the movie can't seem to keep up with her. As Rose, the film's central woman, Davis alternates between serenity and storm. She tears into a powerful monologue in one scene and devastates with quiet pain the next. Quite simply, Davis delivers the single best performance of the year.
Fences is as much a cerebral work as it is an emotional one. On the surface, you have a family in 1950s Pittsburgh falling apart thanks to the sins of the patriarch, Troy Maxson (Washington). He keeps his son, Cory (Adepo), from greatness because Troy himself failed to achieve his dreams as a baseball player. He delivers monologues about loving his wife, but sees other women. He keeps Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), his disabled brother, at arm's length.
These elements of the Maxsons' story serve not just as plot, but as meditations. Fences is as much about the human condition, the black experience and the modern American family as it is about the Maxsons themselves. This is where Washington's performance falls short: The actor is incredible in some scenes, particularly opposite Adepo and Davis, but in the most abstract moments — like a monologue about facing Death — he fails to direct himself well. His fine delivery gets lost in a haze of perplexing ideas, from shot choice to locations.
Davis, on the other hand, is gifted with matriarch Rose's lack of conceptual soliloquies. While Troy is lost in the ether, Rose never fails to see what's right in front of them. He spouts baseball metaphors; she screams, "We're not talking about baseball!" She stays firmly grounded in reality no matter how operatic the monologue, and it's to Davis' credit she makes such lengthy, dense material feel so natural.
In Davis' big scene — the one you just know they'll play at the Oscars when her category is announced — Troy complains he's been standing in the same place for 18 years. "I've been standing with you," she counters, shutting him down. "I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot as you."
It's a veritable thunderbolt of a speech, and Washington almost looks in awe of her as she delivers it. (It's similar to how stunned Meryl Streep looked in her big scene opposite Davis in 2008's Doubt.) There is no greater monologist than Davis working in film today; her work is just magnetic. She rips into every syllable, but never forgets Rose's humanity. It's obvious why she won the Tony in 2010 for playing this role on Broadway.
There have been other great performances in film this year — Mahershala Ali in Moonlight, Molly Shannon in Other People, Annette Bening in 20th Century Women — but Davis' is different. Watching Davis is watching a master craftsman build a cathedral without so much as breaking a sweat. She is unparalleled and reason enough to see Fences, no matter how uneven an adaptation it may be.
Viola Davis will be remembered in history as a legend. We're just fortunate enough to live to see her working at her peak.
Fences opens Dec. 16 in Los Angeles and New York, followed by wide release Christmas day.