The opening sequence of Fences is a propulsive blend of various themes, characters, and exposition. It’s a high-wire act that shifts tones and topics with ease, and it sets up the situation skillfully while Denzel talks as if his mouth just took a shot of adrenaline. It’s energetic and entertaining, and it has you wondering if this energy can sustain itself throughout the entire 138-minute runtime.
Answer? It can’t. The drama begins to feel forced and repetitive at a point, and various scenes feel lifeless and overlong. Perhaps this is the case due to Washington’s unwavering commitment to the story’s stage play roots. He overindulges on the melodramatic monologues, and big moments later in the film are powerful less because of the story or filmmaking and more because of the performances. A lot of it is very uninteresting, and not necessarily because it’s “un-cinematic” (case in point, Toni Erdmann–the last 2016 film I watched–is still interesting even though it utilizes a very unfussy, “un-cinematic” filmmaking approach). The problems are the lack of sufficient editing and, if we’re drawing a connection to the source material, the lack of an intimate live theater setting. The film also has a tendency to let its themes–masculinity, class, generational conflicts–come secondary to melodrama and on the nose dialogue rather than letting these themes speak freely through the characters.
The cast is able to keep it all afloat. There is not a bad performance in here, and the film features several extremely powerful sequences that would not work without the level of talent involved. It seems like all these characters do is speak in metaphors, so the fact that the cast makes the characters feel genuine for the most part is a testament to their skill. I don’t think these are monumental performances like some hyperbolic reviews have suggested, but the cast is why this is worth watching.