Austin Film Festival 2017 Review: ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

From Dan Gilroy, the acclaimed writer/director of Nightcrawler comes this enthralling, but somewhat wonky movie that features another stunning performance by Denzel Washington.  The role gives Washington another opportunity to show his acting range and has a definite shot at gaining some award nominations.  The movie, itself, does have its issues, but still makes a valid statement about money and how the desire for wealth can change otherwise good people.  Though the moral and themes of the film do not really break any new ground in narrative filmmaking, they will always have relevance as long as people have and obsession with money and the impact it has the human soul.

Washington stars as the titular Israel, a veteran lawyer and one-time civil rights activist who has spent much of his legal career working behind the scenes while his partner served as the public face of the firm.  Roman may have a brilliant mind for the law, but his indiosyncratic (possibly autistic) personality has kept him strictly as the brains of the operation, while his more people-friendly partner worked more directly with the clients and handled the litigation in the courts.  When said partner unexpectedly dies, Roman feels lost and displaced in his world.  To help Roman adjust to the situation, esteemed colleague George Pierce (Colin Farrell), an attorney from a big money law firm, agrees to take him in.  Roman has much to learn about the world of big money law firms and eventually begins to embrace the lifestyle.  As Roman changes, he loses a part of himself that was once genuine, ethical and willing to serve those in real need of help.

Dan Gilroy’s film does make some valid statements about the corrupt nature of money and the impact it can have, even on those more resistant to change.  However, the film seems to make a sudden, last minute change from a philosophical parable to a rushed thriller with minimal tension.  The strength of Gilroy’s movie lies in the development of the protagonist who makes for a fascinating examination of innocence lost.  The old adage of money changing everything is in full effect here, though it lacks some needed nuance to pull it off more realistically.

As I stated above, the movie does give Washington the opportunity to shine and in a role quite different from others in his filmography.  He, too, adds to the strength of the character’s development bringing much genuine heart and vulnerability to the character.  Washington also does an exceptional job of showing how infectiously addicted Roman becomes to the money and new lifestyle that has become a replacement for true happiness. The film also features solid performances by Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Nazneen Contractor, and Tony Plana.

Even though the movie just doesn’t excel in presenting this morality tale, it does work well enough to be compelling and is certainly worth watching for the outstanding acting by Denzel Washington.  It is a film that I reluctantly recommend for a full-priced ticket, but one that would make for a great matinee. I honestly feel that Denzel will have a shot at nominations, but the movie itself probably won’t get as much love.  Still, it is a good film from a talented filmmaker that I think most people will enjoy.




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