For its first half, Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. looks like it will be a mirror image of his excellent debut feature, Nightcrawler. Instead of following a man who only does evil and is rewarded for all the evil he does, it follows a man who has devoted his life to justice and reform only to end up with nothing. Unfortunately, the movie is unwilling to sit with this depressing notion, so it transforms into a moralistic piece about the importance of idealism and staying true to your values despite the temptation of material rewards. It’s a nice message and it’s given gravitas thanks to yet another powerhouse performance from Denzel Washington, but the film meanders too much and ends up too slight to make much of an impact.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Washington) is a savant of sorts who works in the back office of a small criminal defense firm doing the nitty-gritty work while his partner and mentor William Henry Jackson is the face of the firm. When Jackson suffers a heart attack and goes into a coma, Roman has to go to court in his place and finds that his unwavering idealism and commitment to justice is no match for the machinery of the judicial system. When the firm is liquidated, he goes to work for Jackson’s associate George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a high-priced criminal attorney who values Roman’s attention to detail. Roman, needing the money, takes the job, but again finds himself at odds with the cold pragmatism of his profession. Despite becoming a mentor of sorts to Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a young activist lawyer, Roman begins to reconsider if his forty years in pursuit of high-minded ideals has yielded anything worthwhile.
The first half of Roman J. Israel, Esq. is where the film looks like it has a strong direction even it looks like it was refashioned from a CBS pilot about a prickly lawyer who brilliantly fights for his clients by using his encyclopedic knowledge of the law in the midst of a corrupted legal system. But at least in this part of this story, there’s a consistency as we see Roman thwarted at every turn. His firm is taken away from him, young lawyers don’t want his brand of 70s activism, and he can’t even do the kindness of stopping a homeless man’s body from being cremated by the city. The movie threatens to make us sit with the high cost of idealism and asking if it’s worth it.
Unfortunately, the movie then bungles the follow up through a contrived series of events where Roman goes back on all his ideals, is momentarily rewarded, but eventually discovers that crime doesn’t pay. Additionally, all of his personality ticks are pretty much discarded so it seems like he’s a completely new person who remade himself in just a matter of weeks. The story then meanders around as it struggles to find a way back to Roman returning to his idealism with minimal effort. His transformation is nothing more than an idealist who dabbled in heartless pragmatism before realizing that it’s good to be good.
This kind of weak character arc requires Washington to do a lot of heavy lifting, but he makes Roman compelling from start to finish. Even when the surrounding movie seems at a loss for what to do next, Washington always has a strong read on the character right now down to how he eats his sandwiches. Although Roman isn’t one of Washington’s best characters, the role shows how Washington’s greatest strength is portraying strength. Usually for Washington’s characters, his strength comes from being the most powerful man in the room, but in Roman, it’s about the strength of his ideals and his work ethic. He’s a man who has been beaten down by life, but you would never look at him and think he’s a loser.
Although Gilroy didn’t need to return to the dark, neo-noir aesthetic and borderline nihilism of Nightcrawler, it’s a shame that the strong characterization and cogent themes of his debut don’t feature as strongly in Roman J. Israel, Esq. It’s a movie that could have packed an emotional punch and considered the cost of pursuing purity, but instead it settles for schmaltz.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. opens November 3rd.