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'Fences': A searing, gut-wrenching drama from Denzel Washington

Troy Maxson, the embittered patriarch played by Denzel Washington in Fences, has a makeshift batting-practice contraption in his Pittsburgh backyard, perhaps as a reminder of  his glory days as a winning ballplayer.

It's an awkward DIY affair. The baseball hangs off a tree branch on a length of twine, attached by a metal screw hook jammed deep into its center.

Sooty and withered by the years of exposure, the ball is an apt metaphor for Troy. This tough Pittsburgh garbage collector has endured a life of prejudice and servitude only to find himself in middle-age feeling like a shell of a man, with nothing to show for his hard work save for a troubled marriage and two sons who feel alien to him.

Fences, opening Christmas Day, is a searing and gut-wrenching adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning play, set during the 1950s as the civil rights era is just dawning. Washington and Viola Davis reprise their leading roles from the 2010 Broadway production — she plays Troy's wife, Rose — and Washington directs.

Fences was a risky directorial choice for Washington, who has previously helmed only two features, Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters.  He mostly avoids the pitfalls of adapting a play. While it feels a little stagy in parts, Fences takes a decidedly visual, cinematic approach. Washington and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Girl on the Train) use close-ups to especially good effect.

Fences is also very much an actors' movie, with breathtaking performances from Washington and his costars, including Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson.

Its screenplay, written by Wilson shortly before he died in 2005, is a layered, deeply complex portrait of a man who refuses to believe that white America has changed its treatment of blacks in any meaningful way since the Civil War.

Mercurial and given to fits of sarcastic verbal abuse, Troy dismisses any evidence to the contrary. He explodes when friend and coworker Jim Bono (Henderson) points to the upswing in black players in professional baseball since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

The comment hits a nerve: Once a brilliant baseball player, Troy had to settle for a career in the Negro Leagues.

When it comes to his wife, Troy is a soft touch. He is supportive, solicitous, and loving to Rose, whom he seems to treat as an equal partner. She's a strong matriarch who controls the family's finances and makes most of their important decisions. By the third act, her entire world will come crashing down when she discovers one of Troy's dirty secrets.

Troy is a tyrannical disciplinarian when it come to his two sons, whom he mocks constantly. The older one, Lyons (Hornsby), lets it roll off his back. A jazz musician in his 30s who refuses to sully his art by working as a garbage man, he shows up every payday to hit up Troy for cash.

But Troy's barbs cut and wound the teenage Cory (Adepo), a sensitive soul desperate for his father's approval. Troy excels at both academics and sports, but gets little warmth from his dad.

When they bat around the ball together in the backyard, the tense, dread silence is broken only by Troy's harsh comments. The scene evokes 1979's The Great Santini and Robert Duvall's brilliant turn as the disapproving, macho father.

Both movies are specific to their own ethnic and social milieu, but also address universal themes about the dreams and ideals of the American family in tumultuous post-war America.

Like Duvall's Bull Meechum, Washington's Troy comes across as a frightening bully and a repulsive product of his environment and upbringing.

But this isn't the final word on Troy. Played with great compassion by Washington, he's also sexy, fun, and charming. Charismatic to the core, he has a devastating sense of humor and an impressive strength of character.

His strength, though, is his tragic flaw. Fences hurtles forward with the inevitability of historical change as Troy asserts his iron determination to remain unchanged.

The effect is tragic, beautiful, thought-provoking.