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