Premieres abound on the fourth day of TIFF. Alfonso-Gomez Rejon brought “The Current War” on the red carpet, a drama about the no-bull battle between electricity titans Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) in their never ending race to determine which electrical system would power the modern world. Rejon, the writer-director of Sundance sensation “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” surprises with his visually stylized direction. I didn’t know he had it in him to produce such brilliantly realized frames, but the talkative screenplay and dry subject matter have resulted in mixed reviews.
“The Mountains Between Us” premiered at the Roy Thompson Hall to rapturous applause. Hany Abu-Assad’s survival story struck a chord with the audience by combining a gritty story of desperation with an unlikely love story. Two stranded passengers of a plane crash (Idris Elba and Kaye Winslet) work together to endure their isolation on a remote, snow-covered mountain.
The biggest premiere of the day was Dan Gilroy’s “Roman J Israel ESQ” which had all the critics and Oscar bloggers attending 9:15pm premiere at the Ryerson.
Gilroy made a major splash in 2014 when he debuted “Nightcrawler” in Toronto, a “Taxi Driver” for the millennial generation that has aged like fine wine over the ensuing years. And so, it was a no-brainer decision for Gilroy to premiere his follow-up effort at this year’s fest, skipping Telluride and Venice.
“Roman J Israel ESQ” is cleary influenced by the golden era of American cinema produced in the 1970s. It’s a character driven study that doesn’t necessarily rely on plot as much as it does on a single character’s mental anguish, as his ethical and philosophical morals are threatened by the lures of capitalism.
Denzel Washington, in one of the finest performances of his career, plays the titular character in such an assured, but vulnerable way. Israel is a brilliant mind who’s been working in the same small-scale law office for three decades. He’s said to be a “savant” of the legal profession, functioning invaluably as the eyes and ears of his boss William Jackson.
In more ways than one, Gilroy’s film reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s equally ambitious and fascinating take on the ’70s movies, “Inherent Vice.” No surprise then that both films share the same director of photography the brilliant Robert Elswitt.
Things take a major turn for Israel when Jackson suffers a catastrophic heart attack and goes into vegetative state. He will likely not ever awaken. The law firm is shut down and a high-end attorney, played by Collin Farrell, hires Israel for his downtown firm. Problem is Israel, just like Phoenix’ stoned hipster in “Inherent Vice,” is a man of integrity possessing some major eccentricities. He clearly has OCD, ritualistically watching his every step as he enters his apartment, but he’s also stuck in an activist mind-set for civil rights in his practice that has prevented him from ever earning a top salary. He is a man of morals who will never sell out for a quick buck.
The film has a unique narrative structure, as Gilroy continuously loops us around a never-ending search for the soul of this fascinating character. There’s a psychedelic vibe in the way the writer-director pits the outright eccentric behavior of his protagonist without ever making simplistic excuses or judging it. “Roman J Israel ESQ” is the kind of film that will likely win considerable respect upon repeat viewings. Washington, wearing an out of fashion double-breasted suit, large glasses and an Afro, seems to have time-traveled from the ’70s to the present day. His performance is fully fledged and highly memorable, testing a character who is utterly fascinating in his endless contradictions. The 62-year-old actor should not be ignored for his towering performance come Oscar time.