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Austin Film Festival: Change is Tragedy in ‘Roman J. Israel Esquire’

The newest thriller from the Academy Award-nominated writer does not disappoint.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. Denzel Washington
By  · Published on October 31st, 2017

The newest thriller from the Academy Award-nominated writer does not disappoint.

When thinking of a suspenseful film, it’s easy to jump to thoughts of mysteries and murders, and while this film has all of that, it also shows that sometimes the most intimidating situations in our lives are when we’re faced with change. And that’s what Roman J. Israel Esquire sets out to address.

After the lawyer, he worked alongside for decades gets into an accident and becomes unconscious, middle-aged civil rights attorney, Roman J. Israel Esquire (Denzel Washington), finds himself at a loss on how to continue the activist duties he has held onto since the 60s. When a younger, hot-shot lawyer, George Pierce (Collin Farrell) comes along and offers him a job at his financially successful establishment which appears to drain the money out of its clients, Roman is too principled and stubborn to take the job, even though he desperately needs it. Believing there is still a place in the world for his steadfast 60s activism, he goes on a search to find a new job working with civil rights. Much to his dismay, he finds himself out of touch with the modern world including modern activism, and in an attempt to change his self and his goals to better adjust, he begins working with George Pierce. But change does not come so easy, and his adjustment to a life of financial success and acclaim comes at a price.

The performances in the film are all around outstanding. Denzel portrays the aged, more righteous lawyer that perfectly juxtaposes Collin Farrell’s portrayal of a more practical and more arrogant one. Through their distinct personalities, the characters really jump out of the screen. And while both have their faults and more frustrating qualities, each can also be seen in a sympathetic light. At all times their motives are clear, but their complete thoughts are not fully laid out, which adds a little more nuance to the narrative and adds to the film as a thriller.

From a sound and visual and standpoint, the film does an excellent job at building suspense where suspense is needed and uses very simple but clever ways to construct character. Never at any point during the movie does Roman say exactly that he is an activist who still pines for the 60s. It’s clear in his language, his choice of clothes, and the fact that his apartment is full of old records that he still listens to on his record player. And though most of the suspense in the film derives from Roman’s own consciousness, it’s hard not to recognize the outside forces that are at play too. This is where Dan Gilroy’s storytelling abilities and directorial adeptness really shine. Never exactly knowing whose wrong and whose right, but still having a someone to root for and care about, is the best combination a thriller can have to keep audiences on their toes.

More than just a suspenseful thriller, however, the story works on a deeper level too, showing that it’s not meant to just keep audiences on the edge of their seats, but rather to make them think of the consequences of devoting oneself to a larger cause. This film could have worked with a number of genres, but in making it a thriller, the stakes and the more thematic aspects of the narrative were enhanced. In giving up so much of his personal life to better change the world, Roman’s character is an embodiment of sacrifice, showing that it’s not always a glamorous and widely acclaimed thing to do. At one of Roman’s more desperate moments, he tells someone that he gave up the opportunity to get married and have a family in order to keep his career going. And though he doesn’t follow up with this, it’s clear the next words he wanted to say were “it can’t all be for nothing.”

In true poetic fashion, sometimes our heroes must devote themselves entirely to a cause to see change, without ever really thinking of themselves, and whether or not that should be is what Roman J. Israel Esquire asks us to think about. Generations may differ, and activism itself may alter over time, but the passion for it is always alive.

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