Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Time Has Come Today: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Of all the great contemporary actors, is it possible that Denzel Washington is the most mystifying? As the defiant private who stood up to his hated sergeant in Norman Jewison's A Soldier's Story (1984), Washington sent currents of electricity through the film. But though he seemed a perfect fit for the charismatic black power leader in Spike Lee's 1992 Malcolm X, he resembled a lifeless icon. His spellbinding matchmaker, Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing was answered later the same year with the dull and earnest attorney who finds redemption defending a lawyer with AIDs in Philadelphia. When he plays the snappy private investigator Easy Rollins in Carl Franklin's crackling Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Washington has some of the quick reflexes of Bogart's Sam Spade, but when he portrays the wrongly imprisoned boxer, Rubin Carter, in The Hurricane (1999), his energy gets sucked up by the character's nobility. Washington is exciting to watch when he gets to fill a role using a card shark's bravado, as he did as the hostage negotiator in Spike Lee's 2006 Inside Man, or when he underplayed the veteran railroad engineer trying to stop a runaway train in Tony Scott's Unstoppable (2010). But more recently, in Fences, he adds little imagination to the role of the embittered sanitation worker. That's because the character is completely worked out in the soapbox speeches playwright August Wilson wrote for him, and when the part is already fully thought through, Washington seems to simply fall back on his actor's skill and leave out his personality. He either becomes part of the scenery or he ends up chewing it. But if the role leaves more room for him to move, he can find surprising corners of the character that can magnetize the camera – and the audience. That's what he does in Tony Gilroy's new picture, Roman J. Israel, Esq., where he has plenty of space to be inventive. He gives an exciting and original performance – even when the film eventually gets muddled in dramatic confusion.

As the title character, Washington is an LA civil rights attorney who is a throwback – in more ways than one – to the early seventies. With the rotund shape of a man who has lived more in his head than in his body, Roman walks the streets in a rumpled suit with a perfectly coiffed Afro listening to jazz and R&B on old-fashioned Walkman headphones as if they were a time machine connecting him to an era he feels more at home in. At the two-man firm he works for, where he shares the practice with his former professor, Roman is used to being the legal mastermind in the background, a progressive idealist in the shadow, and tethered to a time when he was convinced the laws could be changed. When his partner suffers a massive heart attack and falls into a coma, however, Roman is suddenly thrust into the limelight even though (like Rip Van Winkle) he has no real sense of the contemporary world. When asked by their secretary to get continuances until his mentor recovers, Roman sees the opportunity instead to address the charges before the judge when all the judge wants to do is move on to the next case. Since Roman hasn't seen the inside of a courthouse, his reformer's zeal ends up doing more harm than good, as when he draws a $5,000 contempt charge and provides more grief for his clients. Ultimately, as his partner's condition worsens, Roman takes a job with George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a slick high-powered attorney with success on his mind, and whom Roman's partner put in charge if anything were to happen to him. Roman also reaches out to a group of activists who run a non-profit organization that share his passion for justice, including Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a bright young administrator who becomes intrigued by Roman's old-school ideas for reform. But Roman's ideals don't endear himself to George, with his legal expediency. Then one night after work, Roman gets mugged and it has the effect of completely disillusioning him. “You got the wrong guy,” he screams at his assailant, enraged that a man like those he's fought for would dare turn on him. After the shock of the assault, Roman immediately comes to the conclusion that he is the wrong guy for the wrong time, and decides to turn from being a reformer into a master manipulator in order to fit into this new world order.

Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell

Once he messes up a case where a client, Derrell Ellerbee (DeRon Horton), gets arrested for a holdup-murder and agrees to testify against the real shooter, Roman talks him into telling him who the shooter is and where he can be found. With that information, Roman contacts the relatives of the murdered store clerk and accepts their reward of $100,000. With that cash, Roman turns himself into a new man wearing snazzy suits and sporting a new haircut as he finds a way to finally be accepted into George's firm. But Roman's plan ultimately backfires and his future and sense of self quickly fall into jeopardy.

In some ways, Roman J. Israel is another version of the corrupted outsider that Jake Gyllenhaal played in Gilroy's last picture, Nightcrawler (2014), a creepily effective drama about a thief who roams the night until he becomes fascinated with freelance 'nightcrawlers' who shoot footage of accidents and crimes in Los Angeles and then sell it to news channels. To be equally successful, Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom begins his own nightcrawling business, but he manufactures the death and mayhem he sells. Bloom is the outsider as psychopath with little connection to the real world of people whom he only accepts as either subjects for his videos, or buyers of his products. Nightcrawler is a prescient and unsettling little thriller about a world where everything is reduced to transactions rather than human contact. But Washington's Roman revolts against commodification. He is a man trapped in a time where the causes he is passionate for no longer carry the urgency that they once did. But because his idealism is so steely and firm, rather than flexible, Roman's only way to respond to disillusionment is to create another more adaptable persona which completely erases the man he used to be. Washington provides a pretty compelling portrait of a character who has an abiding fervor for justice but his social autism has made it impossible for him to fully comprehend the people he wants justice for – and how to achieve it in this day and age. And when he changes stripes to become the corporate attorney designed to appeal to George and his firm, Washington slips into the role as smoothly as he slips into his nifty new suit.

However, it seems that once Roman makes this change, Gilroy loses his way in the story. Nightcrawler stumbled along, too, toward the end. Throughout that picture, Bloom sells his material to a local TV news director, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who is eager to see her ratings jump. Though she's always looking for the sensational to sell her news, she isn't stupid, at least, until the end, when Gilroy asks us to believe that after perceiving Lou's mounting megalomania, she still welcomes him into the executive world of her television station. The picture not only stretched credibility here, but it attempted to make a larger point of claiming that society at large had become a comfortable home for Lou, a world in which he finally fit. Besides making this specious claim, which took us outside the movie's dramatic logic into illogical social commentary, Nightcrawler catered to a chic form of cynicism. Roman J. Israel, Esq. doesn't turn cynical, but instead becomes hopelessly inspirational: Roman's final act brings about an altruistic change that is completely unbelievable. (Apparently, after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a number of cuts were made and scenes reinserted elsewhere and that may have hurt the logic of the story.)

Carmen Ejogo as Maya

While Washington has a grip on an original character throughout, many of the other actors have too little to play. Colin Farrell looks great in his pinstripes, but his ambiguous shadings are too vague to read. Given his shark's instincts, it makes little sense for George to be as trusting of Roman as he initially is, and even his keeping him around when that trust has been violently shaken is sketchy at best. Carmen Ejogo, who played Coretta Scott King in both Boycott (2001) and Selma (2014), has a warm and inquisitive presence that matches up perfectly with Washington's detached intensity. Her Maya longs to stoke the same fires within herself that have kept Roman so avidly committed to the cause. But Gilroy hasn't developed her character beyond that avidity, so we don't really know how she thinks Roman's out-moded brand of achieving justice will work for her. Late in the picture, she doesn't even seem to realize that he's not the man she originally perceived him to be. When she and Roman go out to dinner at a high-priced restaurant after he's switched into becoming a corporate attorney, she barely seems to notice the change. Even as she compliments him for the way he has inspired her, she seems blind to his answers, which betray all the things she covets in him.

Dan Gilroy is clearly a smart writer/director who likes to work with interesting ideas. In Roman J. Israel, Esq., he has also created a highly original work. By the last act, though, he isn't thinking through the implications of his ideas so that the picture can arrive someplace new. In a familiar genre exercise, the predictable resolutions tend to fit with the overall conception. But since Roman J. Israel, Esq. takes up some new dramatic directions, the pat conclusions seem too obvious. There's a poster on Roman's wall of Bayard Rustin, the main progenitor of the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963, which reads, “Let us be enraged by injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it.” The irony is that Roman J. Israel is a man who is both enraged and destroyed by injustice – even if the picture ultimately hopes to redeem him.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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