'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'
‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ announces its goals as a character study right from the title. Dan Gilroy and Denzel Washington apparently spent years developing the character together, from the script through to the editing room. Unfortunately, while the pair have delivered a fantastic personality from the title down to the end credits, they never really found a story about him worth telling.
This is a pure character study, and any time the movie attempts to put the character into dramatic situations that compile into a plot, it falters. Even though the filmmaker and actor spent so long dreaming up such an intriguing character, they never quite figured out what to do with him.
So who is this Roman J. Israel that Washington and Gilroy are so enamored with? Well, he’s a man lost in time – specifically, the 1970s. His tattered suits and puffed-out hairstyle are stuck in the era when he found his truth and calling. Israel was a black rights activist who got into law to help the disadvantaged. He partnered with his law professor to form a legal practice. His passion for justice and encyclopedic memory drove the cases, while his partner was the face in court.
The story picks up with Israel after that partner died. He tries to defend their clients himself, but is so infuriated by the system and unwilling to waver from his beliefs that he ultimately causes more problems than he solves. It doesn’t help that he’s also somewhat mentally ill. His social skills are low, he subsides exclusively on peanut butter sandwiches, he never changes his uniform, and he spends all his free time listening to old music on vinyl or a meticulously organized old iPod. He has no friends. He’s voluntarily made no money, living in a derelict apartment and slowly compiling a massive class lawsuit of injustice that likely won’t go anywhere.
When that job he clung to for purpose disappears, Israel is left in a funk. His only real passion and goals in life are pursuing his ideals, but that amounts to little. He tries to join a civil rights organization run by an empathetic woman (Carmen Ejogo) who becomes possibly his first friend, but he just doesn’t have the social skills to navigate working in that environment. He’s offered a job at a big law firm by Colin Farrell’s super slick super lawyer, but knows that will compromise his ideals. He takes it anyway, does his best and ultimately ends up being punished for it. When he sees an opportunity to skirt the law and do something wrong to execute justice, he does it and then starts embracing all the superficial pleasures that he denied himself on his path of purity. As you’d expect, corruption follows. Yet he seems to enjoy it, until the inevitable punishment comes.
This is a weird movie to be sure. It’s no coincidence that Roman J. Israel looks like a relic of the ’70s. The film is intended to play as a shaggy character-driven morality play like so many movies of that era. It’s not the first time that Dan Gilroy has played that game. He did it in his brilliant debut ‘Nightcrawler’, which mish-mashed ‘Network’-style news satire with a contemporary paparazzi setting and thriller trappings. It worked brilliantly and the attempt is similar here. In Israel, Gilroy has created a character designed to embody contemporary social justice from its ’60s/’70s activist origins with a plot that sees him attempt to reconcile those ideals with the outside world and see them crushed. The goal was to explore that theme through a paranoid thriller. It’s an intriguing idea, but ultimately doesn’t play well as drama. Though the film is brilliantly shot and edited to give the feeling of paranoia, it never quite registers. That’s in part because no character other than the protagonist is particularly well drawn, and in part because the plot feels forced to make a point. You can’t get caught up in the suspense or care about anyone circling Roman because they all feel tacked-on. The movie slowly slips away from its creators in unfortunate ways, despite the best intentions of all involved.
Fortunately, that central character is intriguing enough that it’s easy to see how Gilroy got lost. Denzel Washington takes a series of bold political speeches and eccentric tics and finds a way to make them human. He’s a man of constant energy with nowhere to put it, someone who cares deeply about all people yet can’t connect with any individual. He’s tragic and pure, and a complete mess. Washington dives in head first to a role without vanity, embracing the excesses of the character and finding ways to make his outlandish actions and outrageous character quirks work on screen. It’s impossible to take your eyes off the character or completely decipher what he’s about. He’s an enigma who means well and a hero so damaged that he can never live up to the crusade. The ways in which Gilroy and Washington thrust him into the modern world are fascinating and frightening and serve as a metaphor for the social justice crusade and the challenge of putting ideals into practice.
There is a nugget for a great movie in ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’, but sadly Gilroy and Washington weren’t quite able to find it (despite some apparent editorial tinkering since the movie premiered at TIFF to address the problems). They created the character with the utmost craft and care, but the point they hoped to make and the story they hoped to tell somehow got lost in the shuffle.