Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)
Written & Directed by Tony Gilroy
Roman J. Israel is a lawyer that hasn’t seen the inside of a courtroom in years. While he types up the briefs, his partner William Jackson makes the court appearances and argues for their clients. Jackson drops from a heart attack, and Roman learns that the firm is on the verge of financial collapse. For the last few years, they’ve had cases tossed to them by George Pierce, a costly and lucrative lawyer. Seeing potential in Roman and feeling pity for him, Pierce brings Roman on to handle small, hard to win cases. The pressures of modern life begin to take their toll on the aging former civil rights activist and Roman starts to question the very nature of his ideals.
I had such high hopes of this film but about a third of the way in realized it was not going to live up to them. The premise, particularly at this point in our history, is so rich with potential to be explored. We have a relic of the black power/civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s living in a world where neoliberal ideals are winning the war. Compromise has been made between the forces of social justice and corporate America in what has led to massive gentrification in communities sold under the guise of “creating mixed-income communities.” It’s very clear from early on that we are going to follow Roman into a night of the soul and we do. The problem is that Gilroy seems very unsure of what tone he is going for in this, his second feature film.
If the movie had been a tightly focused and tonally consistent character piece like Nightcrawler, we would have had a compelling picture in our hands. While Gilroy keeps the entire piece aimed at Roman and exploring his mind, he goes from a character drama to social commentary and even into crime thriller territory. And none of these tonal divergences are satisfying because there is no directorial commitment to them. The theme of the picture appears to be an exploration of high ideals versus a world rife with capitalist compromise.
Roman is a profoundly obsessed person, transfixed with learning how to wield the law as a tool for social justice. During an interview for a position with a civil rights non-profit, he briefly breaks down in tears when expressing that forty years ago he had to decide between a career or having a family. While we never get to know what he was like back in the 1970s we get a sense that his convictions have taken a toll, he has pushed aside basic human needs to pursue the cause. And Gilroy takes this very compelling canvas of a character on which to tell his story and turns it into a middling indecisive mess.
After Nightcrawler I was psyched to see what Tony Gilroy would deliver next. If ever there was a textbook case of a sophomore slump, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is just that. Denzel Washington gives this performance his all, reminding us why he has won so many accolades. The character is multi-dimensional and flawed in all the best ways. He’s not a protagonist you root for at every moment, but the best ones are characters that challenge you. I wish Roman had been in a better film.