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‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ Is a Denzel Washington Movie With an Identity Crisis

Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to ‘Nightcrawler’ wants to be a gritty, ’70s-style character study, but never finds its own voice

IMDb/Ringer illustration

What is Denzel Washington doing in Roman J. Israel, Esq.? Or maybe the question is: What does he think he’s doing? He’s definitely doing something. Of all the great American actors of the last 30 years, Washington may be the one who gives the most consistent impression of effortlessness; whether projecting cool or repressing tension, he never seems to wander outside of his comfort zone. He appears in a lot of movies, many of which are mediocre, but he rarely if ever embarrasses himself: It’s not like you walked out of Safe House or The Magnificent Seven thinking that they’d have been masterpieces if only Denzel had brought his A-game.

In Roman J. Israel, Esq., Washington acts from underneath bad suits and fake teeth and a comically out-of-date hairstyle; his typically crisp line readings are thick and halting. He looks and sounds a bit like Forest Whitaker, and maybe also Forrest Gump, except that there’s no idiocy in his savant-hood. Rather, he’s playing somebody so brilliant that he can barely pass for normal. It’s a very weird performance, and it verges at times on giddy embarrassment, which is actually sort of exciting. The movie’s main sources of suspense are whether it’s ever going to settle on a genre and if its star is going to fully implode while trying to hold things together. He doesn’t, but it’s hard to hold it against him: He’s doing the best he can under the circumstances.

That sympathetic description also applies to the titular Mr. Israel, who is essentially the inverse of the antihero of director Dan Gilroy’s last movie, the enjoyably scummy 2014 thriller Nightcrawler. That film, which riffed simultaneously on Taxi Driver and Network, suggested the emergence of a sly new satirist steeped in the New American Cinema of the 1970s. Gilroy has a thing for exaggerated protagonists. Take Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom, for example—a freelance videographer who turned ambulance-chasing into a profitable gig documenting bloody crime scenes for the local news—played by Jake Gyllenhaal. This was the ultimate hollow man. Lou’s lack of scruples was a perverse form of liberation.

For his follow-up film, Gilroy has imagined an urban defense attorney who’s lived for so long as a prisoner of his impeccable ethics that he’s looking for a way out. He wants to escape doing the right thing. Israel is a mix of two Franks—the eponymous, inviolable undercover cop in Serpico and Paul Newman’s Frank Galvin from The Verdict. The movie also evokes these reference points visually, through a studiedly old-school aesthetic.

For the first hour or so, it’s genuinely difficult to tell exactly when the story is taking place. Working with the brilliant cinematographer Robert Elswit—who shot his brother Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, the movie that Roman J. Israel, Esq. dreams of beingDan Gilroy makes Los Angeles feel like a city slightly out of time. Because the camera stays tied to the titular character, whose rumpled clothes and frizzy Afro are signifiers of the 1970s (his glory days as a defender of activists and revolutionaries), we are almost fooled into thinking we’re watching a period piece. Israel may have an iPod, but his fuzzy orange headphones—always blasting soul and funk hits—are like relics of an analog era. He is a walking anachronism, as out of time as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye or the Dude in The Big Lebowski (to name two superior L.A. movies).

Gilroy is a literary filmmaker, and he’s shaped and organized all of his subplots and symbols (like the fiberglass bulldog that stands guard in Roman’s office and mirrors his loyalty and determination) so that we can’t miss their significance. As the story opens, Roman’s old-school mentor and partner has suffered a massive heart attack, leaving their business in disarray and the moral certitude of the civil rights era on its deathbed. Israel alienates his new boss (Colin Farrell) by refusing to compromise on cases. Addressing a gathering of young activists, he’s mocked for being out of touch and condescending.

Roman’s defining trait is an almost pathological honesty. It’s why a judge holds him in contempt for arguing a pointless technicality on behalf of a client, or two cops are ready to arrest him for refusing to let an apparently dead homeless man go unidentified. His self-righteousness isn’t endearing—it’s annoying, and after 35 years in the trenches standing up for the little guy, it doesn’t bring him any joy, nor has it made him rich. When he gets mugged on the way home from work, he screams, “You’ve got the wrong guy,” and he means it.

The means by which Roman becomes “the right guy”—which involves demagnetizing his moral compass once and for all—is at once Gilroy’s cleverest and most labored twist. Beaten down by decades of decency, Roman uses privileged information from a client in police custody to finger another, more dangerous criminal for a murder and then anonymously collects a cache of private reward money, becoming a high roller overnight. He trades in his polyester ensemble for beautifully cut designer threads, trims his hair and even invests in a pair of gleaming wireless headphones, at which point Elswit’s camera begins to luxuriate in the 21st-century textures of laptops and iPhones. By selling his soul, Roman has caught up to the present tense: The pro bono lawyer has become a profiteer.

Suffice to say that this is all a bit on the nose, but it’s not uninteresting as a commentary on how, under the wrong conditions, idealism can curdle into resentment. “There’s no room for anything pure in this world,” Roman tells Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who runs a nonprofit and exists, like pretty much every other character in the film, only in counterpoint to the protagonist. At first, she’s smitten and seduced by Roman’s awkward incorruptibility, and then alienated by his sudden change in behavior. She’s not a plausible person, but rather a stand-in for the audience, instructing us on how to feel about what’s going on.

What’s even harder to take seriously is the film’s late shift into genre territory, which includes the most shameless and unnecessary car chase I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the last refuge of a filmmaker who’s just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. And Gilroy is so desperate to provoke a big emotional response at the end of his big, ambitious movie that he gets sentimental in the home stretch, throwing subtlety under the bus and completing his hero’s arc from crusader to sell-out to martyr with ruthless (and artless) precision. Roman J. Israel, Esq is trying to be many different things at once: a complex character study; a withering social commentary; an Oscar-season crowd-pleaser; an actor’s showcase. The movie’s identity crisis is more intriguing than the one navigated by its main character.