by Philip Price
Rome and Israel. They share quite the history with one another; a history that is splattered with wars over ideals some of which deal in economics, but those most notably that deal in religious and/or philosophical dealings. In the latest from writer/director Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) it seems the use of these two titles that exist in the realm of common knowledge as opposing forces is to illustrate another kind of philosophical war-the one within a person who has principles, a code of ethics he has lived by his entire life, and the choice to betray those principles, a choice he is totally justified in, due in large part to the fact the world doesn't understand him. One could draw many conclusions as to why Gilroy might have chosen these two words to identify the unlikely hero of his story, but it seems to make the most obvious sense that Rome and Israel are these two ideas, these two kinds of states of consciousness that are constantly at odds with one another. In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” these two pillars of opposing thought form the basis of Denzel Washington's character, a savant of sorts who has worked behind the curtain at a law firm for thirty plus years while his partner, an unseen enigma of a man who was nicknamed "The Bulldog", handled all the courtroom dealings that Roman didn't have the desire nor the social skills to navigate. It is when our titular character is unexpectedly put under this spotlight and then further humiliated by the realization he's invested his life in a practice that has seemingly invested nothing in him that he comes to this fork in the road where his ideals no longer seem to matter and so the point or validity in continuing to try to fight for them is futile. On a broad scope that all may sound like a fancy way of saying this film deals in themes of doing what one feels is right for the recognition and doing what one feels is right because it's right and the difference in character that dictates the difference in intent, but “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” goes a little deeper than that for Washington's Roman gladly worked in the shadows for years doing work he needed little recognition for, but that he at least thought was making a difference. When Roman is forced to awake from his routine he comes to realize the system he has worked under all these years has allowed for little change after all, but has instead been replaced by a world that isn't based around right or wrong or bad or good, but more around what deal can be made to avoid circumstance if possible.
For the first hour or so “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” was shaping up to be one of my favorite movies of the year as it has this insatiable appetite to dissect and devour the justice system as well as both its strengths and shortcomings through the eyes of a character who, by nature, would seemingly be unable to comprehend the minutia in between the black and white-the informalities of the system, if you will. Roman doesn't do informalities, you see. Roman is the kind of guy that has a massive record collection at his small apartment in New York City as well as over eight hundred songs on his dated iPod that he listens to constantly with the same pair of (Sony) headphones. Another constant is JIF peanut butter as it is seemingly stocked to never run out in Roman's small apartment where he eats a sandwich over the sink for dinner every night. Roman, as someone who is clearly on the spectrum, desires order and consistency in as many aspects of his existence as possible. Consistency is comfort. Through this mindset, and through what is another stellar Denzel Washington performance, we are brought into a world where that comfort is being threatened daily which causes both compassion on the part of the viewer because we sympathize with Roman's situation while also intrigue with how such a character will handle the sudden and dramatic shifts his life is taking. It is in this first hour that these kinds of avenues are explored and investigated-leading Roman to make friends with a local leader of a civil rights group in Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo) with whom he finds someone, the rare person, that sees him for who is, what he's sacrificed, and the good he can genuinely do as well as Roman's new boss at a new law firm run by a former student of his long-standing partner, the flashy George Pierce (Colin Farrell). George is more interested in profit than he is bettering the world which initiates this conflict in Roman that he's never had to invest effort in before. While the film never outright states what Pierce's intentions are or how sincere some of his proclamations are meant to be taken, though some are clearly telegraphed to be generalized boilerplate for the sake of gaining business, this leads one to believe Farrell might be a bit miscast here due to extenuating circumstances that have to deal with roles played in the past, but overall these avenues in which Roman travels create interesting questions of identity and even more layers for Washington to play while at the same time continuing to reveal plot points that are engaging so as to not allow the film to lose itself in these thoughts of the nature of how we all continue to tick. It is in finding this balance that the first hour or so of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” reaches moments of inspired greatness.
At one point in the film a woman asks Roman what the Esquire on the end of his name means to which he replies that it is a title of dignity, just above a gentleman and just below a knight, in the legal arena. It is seemingly another example of Roman's taste for the formalities of life, but as this pattern comes into question the film becomes more about how far Roman will go to the other side before realizing he's fallen victim to a perspective he could never truly believe in. This becomes the crux of the movie, but is positioned as that beginning of the third act slump where we typically see a character mess-up, or ruin whatever was going their way so that they might redeem themselves in the climactic act of the film. What Gilroy might be saying with the fact the moment this man, Roman J. Israel, turned on his principal that he then falls victim to the pitfalls of such a lifestyle rather than prosper in it could mean something, but I'm not sure I've quite settled on an opinion yet. As Roman clearly states, "he's tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful." It's a great line (and make no mistake, Gilroy has come up with a handful of solid ones here) and it summarizes the breaking point we see Roman reach perfectly. This is a character we've come to care about and are invested in-this is a man who would risk his well-being for an instance of righteousness when most of us live day to day hoping we aren't forced to make such choices-who turns away from the truths he's always believed upon realizing the movement he once stood for no longer stands with him; it has morphed into something else that Roman can't fully comprehend. This realization he is a man out of time is legitimately heartbreaking and understandably complex. Gilroy never forces these complexities on the audience though, for they can be as layered as one wants to see them-Washington certainly offers a performance worthy of and that could withstand heavy scrutiny and the picking apart of-but “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” could just as easily be about little more than a man who decides to abandon the conflicting ideas in his head, the effort it takes to have as much, and the decision to look out for himself for once. Roman concludes after the succession of events in the first act that purity can't survive in this world and maybe he's right, but there is always those, such as Maya, who can't believe as much it true. It doesn't seem Gilroy can convince himself of this either, for as much darkness and pessimism that is present in his screenplay it is impossible to believe a man who ends his film with a The Spinners track doesn't believe there is some good in the world. Speaking shortly to the extraneous factors that add to the overall feel of the film, James Newton Howard's score feels appropriately dated in its use of a haunting choir that serves the tone in a more suggestively epic way than expected. Robert Elswit's (“There Will Be Blood”) cinematography is also to be noted as it captures Los Angeles in this light that doesn't feel familiar whereas the whole concept of Roman and who he is, the staples of his appearance, and what Washington is doing with these to better inspire interest in the arc of this character are each element that only enhance this complicated, but involving character study.
It is at about the halfway point of the film (the movie runs just over two hours) that one can feel the shift in tone that Gilroy employs to begin the back-half of the discussion he's started on identity and how we balance doing what is best for us and what is best for all of us. While Gilroy walks the line between story and plot to impressive degrees what ultimately stands to not necessarily be the downfall, but more so the less interesting side of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is the fact Gilroy more or less paints himself into a corner where there can be only one way in which the majority of what he has set in motion resolves itself in a realistic and rather dignified manner and so this second half of the film comes to be more a confirmation of what we know has to happen in order for the movie to have the necessary impact rather than a movie that continues to surprise the viewer in the perspective it takes on the material and the themes it is tackling. And yet, despite this slight level of predictability I still found myself invested in these characters-hoping against all odds that Gilroy might come up with a way in which to avoid the obvious conclusions viewers would draw and instead wrap his story up in a satisfying, but maybe even more profound way than could be gleaned from where it seemed everything was headed. And while the second half of the film certainly doesn't derail the movie completely it certainly knocked it down a few pegs for me as it went from being a movie that puts its own spin on the character study by utilizing a unique set of circumstances and a different persona Washington has yet to explore onscreen to the kind of conspiracy drama that feels the need to push actions on its characters that might otherwise fall outside the realm of that grounded reality of social activism that roots the first hour so strongly. Like “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy uses this very particular, very strong personality as an "in" to discuss an aspect of society that he finds fascinating and so, while “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is meant to be a conversation around the judicial system and the decline of activism in general, it becomes so much about the arc of its titular character that the latter part of the film feels like it's trying to recover a handful of the scenes that dissect these conversation pieces. The uncompromising nature of Roman and how it applies to this world of the judicial system and activist groups that he once felt a part of is arguably the better way to convey Gilroy's main ideas anyway, but the movie seems to feel as if it needs to make up for lost ground when, to have followed this character who is his own worst enemy through to a natural conclusion instead of a more concocted one might have allowed this to rank among the best of 2017. I get it though, endings are tough.