Monday, 29 January 2018

Best Actor 2017: Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Denzel Washington received his eighth acting Oscar nomination for portraying the titular character of Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is Dan Gilroy's followup to Nightcrawler which followed an anti-social character through the world of scandalized news, this film attempts the same though through the legal world. Unfortunately this film is far less successful with its unfocused narrative that has several threads that could potentially be compelling in themselves however none of them receive proper development leaving the film aimless.

A consistent element within both films is it casts in its lead a noted thespian in a role that tests their range as an actor through an idiosyncratic character. Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom, who lead Gilroy's last effort, was an ambitious sociopath who attempted to conquer the world in his own demented way. In this film we get Roman J. Israel, a legal savant, with a personal style of yesteryear, and a personality that likely lands him somewhere on the autism spectrum. The role at the very least offers something very much out of Denzel Washington's comfort zone as an actor who, while having played many different types of roles over the years, generally plays confident very socially competent men. Roman is meant to standout like a sore thumb with his 70's afro, his constant use of head phones, prominent teeth, oversized glasses, and grape colored suits. Roman is a sight to behold all on his own so it only makes sense that we are not going to get a typical Denzel Washington performance. This is almost kind of a weird choice as Washington's charisma is one of his great assets as a performer so it is perhaps an odd choice to rip that from him, however it does give us Washington a challenge that we've never seen him before partake of.

Washington's performance exists in a bubble and perhaps that is for the best as the film surrounding him is a bit of a mess. Roman does stand apart in a way that I will say allows Washington to give it his best with a certain degree of consistency even as the film takes such a scattershot approach. Washington goes head first into his performance here and I have to say there is a certain interest in just watching Washington approach this character. In the opening scene of the film, well after a cryptic narration that establishes where Roman might be heading by the end of the film, we first meet Roman as he goes about his legal work in a two man law firm where he specializes in preparing cases while his partner handles the actual courtroom work. Washington plays Roman as a man with a certain mental deficiency in the way he exhibits the character's attention. When he working Roman plays a man completely focused into whatever he is doing on the paper, however this is not with a typical dogged emotional determination. Washington instead depicts it as this detached focus who has to mentally position himself into this single activity. The intensity of this focus is great, but Washington effectively portrays this without the weight of sentiment in a way. The man just is in his element as he does this work but also a man who is wholly in a world of his own, on a mental plain that just is not the norm.

When he hears some terrible news that his partner in law has had a heart attack Washington realizes this unique state all the more, as his reactions shows that the man barely hears the news. He takes a moment, a moment where he seems to process this new direction for his mind and this portrays almost this dysfunction in Roman's way of thinking as he has to go from one frame of mind to another. Washington in this does something rather interesting in that he portrays this conflict within the moment as most of still has this upbeat focus on his current legal activity, yet there is a completely separate emotion creeping separately from that state that he expresses as something that grows and builds until Roman suddenly becomes sorrowful. Washington is convincing in portraying this wholly different way that this man processes information. This is consistent factor and rather interestingly this is something he shares with Gilroy's previous "protagonist" Lou Bloom, in that Roman also simply doesn't function on the normal human level of thought. The difference though is where Gyllenhall's showed that Lou seemed to attempt to take steps in order to imitate normal human behavior, in sort of wearing literal faces type of way, Washington portrays Roman as blissfully unaware that he is at all different from the average person.

We see this throughout the film with the way Roman handles clients and courtroom procedure. Washington consistently portrays the manner of Roman as this specified directness as though the man can only focus on one thing at a time properly. Again Washington is actually quite effective in realizing this personal style of the man as he goes about negotiating plea bargains and dealing with court procedure. Washington makes Roman wholly without proper manner, how with this very exact conviction in every delivery of a master of legalities. At the same time though Washington makes this completely without social sensibilities so when any sort of tact is required Washington lacks that and does well to show how it is that Roman consistently gets himself into trouble nonetheless. Washington depicts Roman with the confidence of a genius but without the ability to convey this genius in any useful fashion much of the time. The passion in Washington's delivery is specifically within the words that directly convey his message without any time spent to smooth them over towards whomever he is speaking with. Washington does well to make Roman his own worst enemy who obviously has some great ability in him yet is completely unable to soften it in a digestible form for those around him to make it of any use.

We see this in Roman in every facet of his life even beyond when he is not directly acting as counsel. After losing his legal partner is forced a couple of options that leave him to work with the hot shot attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell) or attempt to return to his grass roots days of old. Although the whole angle of the grass roots is poorly conceived I will say Washington is great in the scenes that involve them. His first scene where he goes to seek employment there by meeting with one of the workers Maya (Carmen Ejogo) and he attempts to describe his old days while being basically turned down for the job. Washington has a terrific moment where he reveals the clash in Roman's mind where he tries to evoke his professional method yet the somberness of reflecting his old days reveals itself through seeming almost a random emotion in his years. Washington makes this feel natural within Roman's way of dealing with emotion which again is as this clash that reveals itself in an unusual fashion for a normal person yet is consistent to everything we know from Washington's development of Roman's character. Roman once again being a man who can only really operate with one frame of a mind at any time, and anything forcing a mix Washington depicts as leaving him as a bit of a mess.

Now the film itself is again unfocused but I will say Washington's approach does its best to at least alleviate this within the character of Roman. Technically speaking Roman suddenly decides to misuse his legal privileges, suddenly decides to work with Pierce, suddenly reveals his potentially earth shattering legal reforms, everything is very sudden and to a ridiculous extreme. Washington to his credit manages to make sense of these wildly diverging choices because he does make sense of Roman's way of dealing with his world. He takes the bribe because Washington shows that Roman gets caught in the mindset of cynicism after losing his friend, and almost his job with Pierce. We get a moment of conflict in this betrayal of his morals but this is shown through Washington again revealing at this problematic clash in his mind, a moment of intense emotion that Roman again doesn't seem to know what to do with it so instead focuses on making money from misusing information from a client. Every extreme action makes sense as Washington shows it as it becomes that narrow focus that controls Roman's actions. When he loses the crowd at a town hall, Washington portrays it very well as Roman getting caught on the idea of being what he feels is courteous and just can express any nuance in the moment. His treatment of Pierce as sometimes a sorta foe, other times an ally Washington successfully reveals as whether Roman is caught in his ideals, or caught in his ego. Washington manages to give life to Roman's unique behavior and makes sense out of it. His performance as it stands alone is compelling because he pulls off this tricky role made trickier by the material. The film has its lead, it unfortunately doesn't know what to do with him. Washington to his credit though never get overwhelmed by the film's shortcomings in fact he does his absolute best to amplify the few qualities it has. Washington tests his range here, as he also did in Fences, and once again delivers. It's a shame that his work is not in a successful film, however as it stands alone it is strong work from Washington who I hope continues to take these chances.

58 comments:

Luke Higham said...

I'm glad he did much better than I expected him to though I still hope Chalamet finishes above him.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: What's your new rating for Ridley in The Last Jedi and is Driver still a 4.

Calvin Law said...

Interesting that Washington's given Louis's favourite two performances of his in the past two years.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: I'm looking forward to his opinion on Washington's work in Man On Fire, which was my favourite of his pre-Fences. And I hope he gets an upgrade for Glory.

I've now given up on Hamill getting reviewed for The Last Jedi.

Calvin Law said...

If it's a 10 man lineup I think he might.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: I still think it will be a 10 man lineup, but I fear his issues with the film have strengthed to the point that it could have quite an effect on Hamill's work. A five rating is unlikely now.

Robert MacFarlane said...

I hereby use my request from the previous prediction win to secure Hamill a review.

Luke Higham said...

Well thank you Robert. :)

I guess Michael's gonna request Craig.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: Make that an 11 man lineup, if you include both Detroit men.

Calvin Law said...

Well with Hamill a guarantee now, I think it will be:

Guarantees (though you never know):
Stewart
Poulter
Ford
Hamill

Likely:
Greenwood
Mitchell
Dano
Rylance
Craig
Flynn
Lynch
Boyega

Maybes:
Shannon
Reilly
Keaton
Duris

Calvin Law said...

Luke: It'd be great if Louis included both the Detroit fellas together, especially since I feel his feelings towards Boyega in TLJ may have waned even more. But if he doesn't I'll definitely understand (though I'd feel bad for Michael since Boyega's his win).

Calvin Law said...

Also,

Jack Dylan Grazer/Bill Skarsgard in It.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: For the other six spots:

Dano
Rylance
Craig
Flynn
Lynch
Grazer & Skarsgard/Greenwood

If he's a 5 then Duris for the last spot.

Calvin Law said...

Also I haven't seen Lady Bird but is Tracy Letts 5-worthy?

Luke: I predict Mitchell over Lynch (Lynch is great but it's a pretty short performance).

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: Fair enough.

Giuseppe gave Letts a 4 so he's likely a 4.5.

Louis Morgan said...

Luke:

Both 4's.

Calvin:

No, I'll give my thoughts on Letts soon.

Psifonian said...

A worthy rating. It's an imperfect performance, but that's largely due to the messiness of the script and its lack of focus. Washington was nothing if not compulsively watchable, and he alone makes Roman J. Israel, Esq. a fascinating character in his own right, worthy of a better movie than what he ended up saddled with.

Luke Higham said...

Have you seen Paddington 2 yet Louis.

Louis Morgan said...

Letts - 4(It's a good performance though I'll admit I originally saved him just in case the film pulled a Silver Linings Playbook style over performance, which obviously did not happen. Letts does well with his reduced reactionary role in projecting just a natural warmth of the loving father though with that the sense of a certain depression that lies with him the whole time. His work is effectively internalized in that he both reveals what the father is going through while always maintaining this certain facade of wellness as though he has no real problems in front of his children.)

Luke:

No.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Your thoughts on The Passion of the Christ's cinematography.

Thoughts on the main theme from Born on the Fourth of July.

And what are your top ten best shot films of the 2010s so far.

Luke Higham said...

*have strengthened to the point

Michael McCarthy said...

I saw three Billboards again the other night, and as much as I wanted to give my win to a relative newcomer I really do have to give it to Rockwell. Boyega's still a strong runner up for me, and if I were to request someone it'd be him over Craig. I'm not going to request anyone though, as I don't want to mess with Louis's planned lineup. I just feel like in years like this, the most interesting reviews to read are going to be the ones Louis is the most enthusiastic about writing.

Calvin Law said...

Mine would be, in alphabetical order

Birdman
Blade Runner 2049
Drive
Dunkirk
The Handmaiden
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Sicario
Silence
The Tree of Life

Mitchell Murray said...

woah.. I can't say I was expecting this high of a grade. Part of what makes me so hesitant about the movie is the fact its so left field for Washington. From the trailer it looked like a very external, mannered performance, but this has sparked my curiosity.

Robert MacFarlane said...

In terms of best-shot, I'll also do alphabetical;

Atomic Blonde
Blade Runner 2049
Blue Ruin
Drive
It Follows
The Master
A Most Violent Year
Silence
The Social Network
The Tree of Life

Robert MacFarlane said...

Concerning Letts: Much like Metcalf reminding me of my own mother, he reminded me a good deal of my father. The part about him getting laid off after two decades of work happened to me in my senior year as well. Like I said before, I saw way, way too much of my own life in that film. But as much as I enjoyed Letts' performance, the supporting actor in Lady Bird I think about the most is Stephen Henderson. Affecting work for such a brief amount of screentime.

Matt Mustin said...

I feel like I should be more surprised by this review/rating than I am.

Bryan L said...

Louis: Your thoughts on Bradley Cooper as an actor? And some past film roles for him?

Mitchell Murray said...

(Bryan L) Well I'd like to think most everyone on this blog likes Cooper, American Hustle not withstanding.

Bryan L said...

Mitchell: It seems like he's kept a somewhat medium profile over the last two (2) years, with just voice work and a supporting role in War Dogs. I wonder how he'll do as director and lead of the A Star is Born remake.

Michael McCarthy said...

Also as far as Washington, I'd like for Louis to find more of his performances that he likes, but what is like even more is for him to upgrade some of the ones he's seen. I used to be as dismissive of his work in Training Day as Louis, but I've come to see it as a very entertaining and even somewhat iconic performance. And I really hope he pulls a Stephen Rea with The Hurricane, since he's my win for 1999.

Charles H said...

As Denzel's career stretches his performance have increased in quality, and i haven't been a fan of him until somewhat recently.

Calvin Law said...

Bryan L: I think Copper would be great as Jeffrey Wigand.

RatedRStar said...

Nevermind eh.. =D

Louis: What are your thoughts, if this is possible, on the performances from Woodstock? that might be a long post so I dont know, ranked maybe? favorites to least favorites, my favorite was probably Santana.

Anonymous said...

Louis and you guys: If 50s Marlon Brando was alive in the 21st Century, what roles in films made in the 2000s and 2010s would he be a great fit for?

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Are there any Supporting Actor nominees from any year who you might re-evaluate.

Calvin Law said...

Saw Hostiles, found it quite compelling, while it might not be the most consistent Scott Cooper films it easily hit the highest heights. Louis what did you make of the final shot? I rather loved it despite having some reservations with the ending, and I was happy they didn't go beyond that particular point.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: What did you think of Bale.

Calvin Law said...

Luke: He was incredible.

Luke Higham said...

I'm really excited for Bale's review, perhaps as much as Jackman & Stewart.

Luke Higham said...

I hope we'll get Alternate Supporting first. I'd like to have Stewart's review before Jackman's and there's gonna be more fives in Lead.

Bryan L said...

Anonymous: Ennis Del Mar
Tony Fiorello (Brooklyn)
Colin Sullivan

Anonymous said...

Louis: What roles could you have seen John Barrymore in if he hadn't died in the early 40's?

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the Ant-Man trailer.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: I saw Early Man. I thought it was fine. The plot was a standard, predictable sports underdog story that just left me feeling really disappointed when I was hoping for something a bit more original.

The voices were all good. I liked Spall and Hiddleston best.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: Thinking about it more, this is Aardman's weakest effort since Flushed Away and I may have enjoyed it slightly more than Early Man. It's such a shame for Nick Park. It pains me to see all the work he put in go to waste. I loved almost all of his previous films, I even liked A Matter Of Loaf And Death.

1. Chicken Run
2. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
3. Shaun The Sheep Movie
4. The Pirates!
5. Arthur Christmas
6. Flushed Away
7. Early Man

Matt Mustin said...

Louis: Are you planning on watching Trust, Danny Boyle's version of the Getty kidnapping starring Donald Sutherland?

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Do you plan on watching Fantastic Mr. Fox before seeing Isle of Dogs.

Mitchell Murray said...

You know, I just realized that if all goes as predicted, this will be the second time Woody Harrelson and Christopher Plummer lose to a first time nominee.

Calvin Law said...

Man, Ant Man being promoted before Solo, what is going on.

Calvin Law said...

That's a shame Luke, was hoping for better.

Louis Morgan said...

Matt:

I'll watch the first episode at the very least if the reviews are good. I have to admit though only Sutherland as Getty really ignites any enthusiasm from me as far as the cast is concerned.

Luke:

As typical for a Gibson film the technical elements are in top form. Caleb Deschanel's cinematography is incredible here in its realization of the biblical story through the lens of every shot essentially as a baroque painting of each scene. The framing is perfection in terms of how dynamic every shot is in particular focus in and around Christ. The lighting is fascinating though as it not only highlights every environment, the careful way it details every figure in the widest crowd shot, like a proper baroque masterpiece, is simply incredible.

Probably.

The Theme from Born on the Fourth of July, just as with Williams's other collaboration with Stone in JFK, is a notable departure for the composer with a chance to show a range in his work. This realized in fascinating detail here in that he grants usually such an earnestness in his work here he plays with a little bit in granting a national anthem of sorts, even opening with essentially taps, to create a certain sense of subversion as there is something emotional within the string however it feels this tension that is of conflict rather than of hope. It is beautiful work to be sure, but so well used in subverting the usual expectations associated with a Williams score.

I'll go alphabetical at the moment as well, as not to rush placement of the newbies.

Birdman
Blade Runner 2049
Drive
Dunkirk
La La Land
Mad Max: Fury Road
Phantom Thread
Silence
Skyfall
The Tree of Life

In regards to the Ant-Man trailer it looks like they're going all in on those big to small gags, and I have to admit it got a little old within the trailer itself. I hope the film has more to offer, but this wasn't a great first impression for me.

Bryan L:

I would not say I have a take on Cooper completely yet in that I don't think we've fully discovered what he has to offer or where he is going as an actor. I will say he definitely has talent with a notable emotional range, and definite comedic skill as well. It is interesting to see where he will go with that. He's an actor who I think needs the right material though as just left on his own I usually find him more smarmy than charming, and can go off the wrong type of deep end. He definitely has a great deal of potential and I'll be interested to see where he goes next. I will say I hope A Star is Born works out for him, although I must say I don't think the film needed a third remake. As if it does not it will become a critical punching bag I guarantee it given its cast, and the fact that Cooper is directing it himself.

Midge Kelly (Champion)
Joe Clay (Days of Wine and Roses)
Frank Hackett (Network)

RatedRStar:

I haven't watched it in quite some time, although I do recall Santana's performance being great.

Anonymous:

Those listed.

Tahmeed:

Can't think of any obvious ones.

Anonymous:

Anthony John (A Double Life)
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Willy Loman

Bryan L said...

Calvin: The fact that Ant-Man has a trailer out before Solo is making me think that the one rumor that came out a month ago (where Disney is basically writing off the movie) may have some truth to it. D=

Calvin Law said...

Louis: your thoughts on the final shot of Hostiles?

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your top 10 episodes of King of the Hill

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Which 10 actors have you found the most disappointing or haven't fully realised their potential.

Luke Higham said...

Louis: And your thoughts on the Mute trailer.

Louis Morgan said...

Calvin:

I think it is great in terms of conception, and in some ways execution. I will say though the impact is diminished a bit, in part because the immediacy of the cut to the train station, and that we should have had more time between Blocker and Little Bear.

Anonymous:

1. Megalo Dale
2. Returning Japanese
3. Soldier of Misfortune
4. Lupe's Revenge
5. Hillennium
6. A Fire Fighting We Will Go
7. Yankee Hankee
8. Jumpin Crack Bass
9. Apres Hank, Le Delugs
10. Snow Job

Luke:

Only very Currently Speaking, and really this is all potential.

Dane Dehaan
Sharlto Copley
Simon Pegg
Christoph Waltz
Jim Carrey
Forest Whitaker
Jason Clarke
Mickey Rourke (both times)
Paul Bettany (Not his fault)
Robert Downey Jr. (He can do more than Tony Stark)

Color me intrigued. Probably due to Blade Runner, the visuals look more than decent though not quite great, but since it looks like a mind bending thriller from Jones I'm definitely interested.