Wednesday, November 22, 2017

MOVIE REVIEW/Roman J. Israel, Esq.
A Walk On The Ethical Downside Of A Mountain

Denzel Washington in the title role in Dan Gilroy's drama "Roman J. Israel, Esq."

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ethics are a canon of Dan Gilroy's work and he's used Los Angeles to throw daggers of mental cruelty in our faces.  Los Angeles rarely looks sunny in his films ("Nightcrawler") or his latest, "Roman J. Israel, Esq.", which sees the title character played by Denzel Washington increasingly suffocated and isolated, mentally and physically after taking a fork in the road.  "Roman" opens on a stark blank white slate.  Words are foreboding biblical commandments on electronic parchment.  Something heavy is going to happen.  It's weighing on Roman's mind.  And we're living in his mind, uncomfortably.

Roman's a rule-breaking, earth-shaking old-schooler who fought the good liberation fight for the underdog.  Now he's trapped in a post-Reagan era that's abandoned him.  Skyscrapers dwarf him.  Roman's apartment hasn't seen any of the light Genesis speaks of.  The apartment is his own mind: dank, yearning to breathe free.  After the death of its patriarch, a venerable law firm the once-vaunted Roman anchored holds on to him or rather, temporarily he holds on to it.  For dear life. 

"Roman J. Israel, Esq." is about holding on, and holding two opposing ideas in your head at once while trying to do what natural law or human law beckons when practiced institutional law is folly.  As an attorney I know the feeling.  Defending companies who do morally awful things may be bad enough for some but breaking those companies' trust is far worse for the profession.  It's difficult to resist wincing in discomfort as the garrulous, inappropriate Roman joins a shark-hunter firm headed by George Pierce (a dapper and good Colin Farrell), a move that tests Roman's standing as a righteous scales-of-justice man.  Pierce is the slick, faceless devil, a self-assured, fast-talking monotoned monied metronome of manipulation.  Roman is the endlessly philosophical immovable object trapped in 1970s suits.

Each move Mr. Gilroy plots in this minefield of human behavior and conflict is delicate but imprecise.  Bursts of melodrama don't quite fit.  Two scenes with homeless men, and another scene with a third man send "Roman" down another avenue, arresting any flicker of narrative verve.  Marvin Gaye announces a drastic change but "Roman J. Israel, Esq." grows timid and halting as Mr. Washington excels.  The movie seems to duel with its lead actor as much as its lead actor battles (or is that acquieces to?) forces that compel him to a reckoning. 

I think Mr. Washington is far smarter an actor here than Mr. Gilroy is a director.  Mr. Washington's acting in "Roman J. Israel, Esq." is so proficient, stunning and seamless that I was intensely uncomfortable with his dissembling even as I saw it coming.  He knows it too.  Is Roman conning us or conning himself?  Or both?  You choke with Roman as he struggles to break free of his own shirt in one scene, a powerful equivalent to tearing off his own skin.  One of the subtle things Mr. Washington does is wear his glasses in some scenes so they obscure his eyes.  It's a great technique that cuts to the heart of the character and the film.  Yet Mr. Gilroy doesn't seem to know how to compliment Mr. Washington's methods, accompanying Roman with unnecessary dramatic flourishes. 

Was Mr. Gilroy too in awe of his star man?  He doesn't let Mr. Washington's skills breathe as much as he allowed Jake Gyllenhaal's to in "Nightcrawler", a film that felt more organic, focused and vital than Mr. Gilroy's latest work.

Also problematic in "Roman" is the placement of Carmen Ejogo's character Maya, who looks more like a designated consoler than a full-blooded character.  "Roman?  Roman?  What's happening?  What's going on?"  Maya starts off as a confident community activist center leader and winds up as a woman confused by the reticent, mysterious man she thought she knew.  But where does she stand independently of this maelstrom?  As hostage-appendage?

Roman is a preacher more than he is a lawyer.  There's such a thing as preacher hype.  If you've heard of that term you presumably understand its meaning.  I don't think Roman is troubled as much as he is trapped in the truth of his own frailties.  He struggles, pushes and pulls but he's a totally aware soul trying to roll a boulder up a crumbling mountain.  He's in denial, or maybe not.  He's trying to prove the unprovable or the inevitable and resting his case at the same time. 

It's a joy to watch one of the world's best actors navigate existential crisis.  I don't even think Roman is an unreliable narrator.  He's a riddler who riddles the mirror in front of him.  The greater the open spaces he inhabits the thinner the air.  It's the one thing Mr. Gilroy gets right: physical space, and a lack of mental space.  "Roman J. Israel, Esq.", a title befitting the utterances of its awkward, rude, constricted character, stays afloat only because of Mr. Washington's greatness, and a very impressive soundtrack.

With: Tony Plana, Amanda Mason Warren, DeRon Horton, Lynda Gravatt, Jocelyn Ayana, Robert Prescott, Nazneen Contractor, Hugo Armstrong, Brittany Ishibashi.

"Roman J. Israel, Esq." is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language and some violence.  The film's running time is two hours and four minutes.

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