Movie Review : Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)
* This review contains spoilers *
The name Dan Gilroy might not ring a bell. But it’s likely you’ve seen his scorching directorial debut Nightcrawler sometime over the last five years. An original and low key profound movie that challenges our very notions of good and evil. Perhaps you’ve seen his Coenesque take on art criticism Velvet Buzzsaw on Netflix. I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen Gilroy’s sophomore effort Roman J. Israel, Esq, though. It’s one of these movies that never gives you a solid reason to watch it. It’s difficult to understand exactly what it is until you press PLAY.
But let me reassure you: Roman J. Israel, Esq. doesn’t have any fucking clue what it is and what it’s trying to say either.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is… the story of Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington), a civil rights lawyer with Asperger Syndrome. I mean, it’s never told, perhaps undiagnosed but it’s clearly there. After the passing of his associate and mentor, Israel wants to pursue his mission but is confronted to a world that doesn’t have much use for defenders of the poor and downtrodden. So, he accepts a job from George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a tough, business-minded lawyer who helped closing down the firm he worked at for 36 years. He’s assigned to the case of Darrell Ellerbee (DeRon Horton), which he sees as an opportunity to make a point to Pierce.
I could never figure out what this film was trying to say. My best guess was that “idealism is dead”? The selfless, guardian angel laywer dies at the beginning of the film, leaving his inapt partner to fend for himself in a world where progressive pursuits have been coopted by activists with conflicting worldviews. There’s this super cringey scene, where Israel is talking to disorganized activists and instead of listening to what he has to say, they’re trying to catch him off-guard and end up calling him gendered and sexist. They come off as narrow-minded, but Dan Gilroy comes off as narrow-minded too for portraying them as such heartless vultures.
Eventually, Roman Israel let’s go of his selfless pursuits and does something for himself. It’s not the right thing to do. It’s not even moral, but for a moment the Gods smile down on him. Long story short, he gets a killer behind bars and makes a quick buck doing so. Of course, he is illogically assigned to defend the aforementioned killer (after being accused of malpractice on the same freakin’ case) and it bites him in the ass. So, the idea of learning to fend off for yourself and adapting your worldview to survive is thrown out the window and Roman J. Israel, Esq. is back to its bizarre, tormented view of a dying idealism. See what I mean here? The movie doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. was born out of a desire to make something deep and socially relevant. The problem is, you need more than just the actual desire to make it so. For starters, ideas that are clear and uplifting, which this movie is completely devoid of. Dan Gilroy was probably handed a blank check after Nightcrawler and that’s one way to make bad movies. To ask someone to make it all alone, without helping him to clarify his ideas. I’m not going to throw the towel on Gilroy. Everybody can lay an egg and he’s bounced back from it already with the excellent Velvet Buzzsaw . But you can skip Roman J. Israel, Esq. It is the tuna fish sandwich of legal thrillers.