Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Following up his smashing directorial debut with Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy again explores professional moral ambiguity. This time he’s got two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Fences) playing slightly against type. Wild hair, 90’s Sony Walkman and retro clothes make this look like a period piece, but that’s only Washington’s character. Like his previous film where Jake Gyllenhaal played so many different facets to various personas, Washington leans into the unfamiliar, ever so slightly. The narrative structure for Gilroy’s script is slightly off this time, pulling and pushing the audience into different directions. Once we get interested in a particular topic, the story goes elsewhere. The consistency of Washington’s performance, with the assistance of Farrell in supporting, do keep the audience engaged for wherever this dramatic vehicle is headed.

Over forty years Roman J. Israel, Esquire (Washington) sat in his law offices, behind the scenes, doing invaluable research for the firm. When the firms’ patriarch falls into a coma, the struggling practice is closed. Unable to get a job elsewhere, Israel reluctantly goes to work for hot shot attorney George Pierce (Farrell). Israel is described as an oddball, civil rights attorney but speaking in public or dealing directly with defendants is not his specialty. Pierce discovers these truths this the hard way. A crossroads to a life he’s always wanted presents itself, but can Israel turn his back on everything he has stood for just to become a more generic part of society. “Purity can’t survive in this world”.

Despite the fact Israel is nearly presented as a caricature, Washington’s performance is still effective, both entertaining and sincere.

Despite the fact Israel is nearly presented as a caricature, Washington’s performance is still effective, both entertaining and sincere. Some of the introductory scenes helping us understand the character’s plight, have him calling to report after hour noise at a near by building, arguing with judges, and giving questionable advice to clients. At times Israel spouts off legal jargon that will make no sense to an average audience, and finally someone asks him about the “esquire” at the end of his name. His answer is both definitive and well written. Washington may never disappear into the character, the gap between his teeth certainly helps, but many scenes feel like grandstanding for some awards purpose this film was never destined for.

A couple of times throughout the film, Israel meets with clients. These confrontations showcase a different side of our leading character, but the script never follows up. Roman J. Israel, Esq isn’t a courtroom drama, it’s not a suspense thriller either. Gilroy is looking to examine something deeper than the law or humanity, but one’s patience for virtue. The misfit we’re introduced to in the beginning, becomes someone entirely different by the films third act, and it’s a bit hard to believe that a haircut and updated earphones can change personality so drastically. Gilroy can’t get this film to be the brilliant conundrum Nightcrawler offered, despite some reediting following its TIFF debut.

Final Thought

Mostly enjoyable, thanks to Washington’s slightly outside the box performance.


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