Writer/director Dan Gilroy burned up the screen with his rocking debut Nightcrawler, a deeply unnerving study of a social alien, scumbag nightly news journalism and unchecked professional ambition featuring one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s very finest onscreen performances. After a few years of anticipation, Gilroy returns with Roman J. Israel, Esq. a character-study-cum-legal-noir with the ever-reliable Denzel Washington decked out in an outdated plum-colored suit and a frizzly afro. Obviously, I was as game as a Michael Douglas in a David Fincher movie to see what Gilroy would deliver next.
Nightcrawler proved a masterpiece of tone, Gilroy commanding piano wire tension that kept us constantly off-center and paying fierce attention to the many warning signs collapsing in around us. Roman J. Israel is, in a word, not. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite, failing to get even the basic ingredients of a thriller right. Roman J. Israel’s inability to find narrative propulsion and tonal consistency is even more disappointing in the context of Nightcrawler because we’ve seen Gilroy succeed with material of this variety before and to do so with reckless abandon.
Gilroy’s sophomore film very much wants to have its cake and eat it too, trying (and failing) to be an inspiring character study, a conspiratorial noir, a legal thriller and a shallow love story. In that regard, it really only works as a character study and only partially, Denzel deserving due credit for making that aspect work. The character as written can by cloying, saccharine and oblivious in his binary, tic-loaded outlook on the world. He probably has Asperger’s and Denzel revels in the character’s oddities, showboating these eccentricities but never in such a way to make a mockery of the character as written by Gilroy.
Roman (Washington) is a rigid man, a close study of law books, slaving for justice in cases just above the pro-bono pay grade. When his partner suffers a massive heart attack, Israel is thrust into the limelight, working trials for his clients for the first time and stumbling upon a murder case that threatens to alter his entire course of existence. After a life spent working for peanuts (his cabinets literally brimming with as much Jif Peanut Butter (smooth, gross) as the eye can see), Roman’s inflexible approach to the world and his moral mantra waver. What little plot there is follows Roman’s mid-life crisis, as he veers off the path of the righteous guardian for a financial windfall that comes with some serious (and seriously eye-rolling) consequences.
The film tracks Roman as he transitions from the bookish workman to a suit for a respected legal firm run by attorney-with-businessman-qualities George Pierce (Colin Farrell in a role that just doesn’t work). In order to stay his troubled conscience, Roman befriends community advocate and do-gooder volunteer Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo, solid if underutilized), who becomes Roman’s professional understudy, and an awkward and forced love interest. As he navigates the social trenches of working at a upper-tier corporate law firm, Roman sticks out like a sore thumb but the most glaring wounds resides in the film’s internal consistency.
Gilroy paints a picture of moral decrepitude where it simply does not exist; a perceived disconnect between Roman’s moral compass and Pierce’s business practices becomes of paramount interest to Roman though as presented in the film, it may not exist at all. Roman acts like he’s sold his soul to work for Pierce but the later seems to encourage and even professionally support Roman’s holy war against institutional injustices. Like much in the film, these two competing ideas just don’t jive and make for some troubling cognitive dissonance.
There is a story to be told here, about a Sisyphus who has toiled for so long that when he finally makes progress, he sees it as an enemy but that is just not the story Gilroy weaves. In fact, he seems to miss the forest for the trees at every important outing, inevitably losing steam trying to tell the story of a good man who succumbs to temptation because he can’t seem to reconcile the characters and the situations he’s written them into.
Much of the individual components of the film just don’t work. Collin Farrell’s character Pierce and the law firm he runs are just a strange and incongruous element to the larger puzzle; Roman and Pierce’s relationship is poorly defined and inconsistent; Pierce’s intentions aren’t transparent (is he genuinely a good guy or does he want to appear so to seduce more clients, and which does the film want us to believe?), the whole guiding credo behind the firm (and the film) loose and untenable, as we see them through Roman’s eyes.
Everything to do with Pierce feels cheaply written, a marriage of narrative convenience that shifts with the passing wind. Worse still, it has nothing really to do with the central plot and Roman’s larger moral conundrum. A thread that has Roman on the run from shadowy Bad Men also feels tacked on and counterproductive to the ethical parable that’s meant to define the feature. To call the writing in Roman shoddy should almost be a compliment; what passes as plot here resembles an early draft of an uncompleted thought. It wants to tip its hat to Erin Brockovich, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and even Chinatown but loses its entire head along the way.
So too is the unfolding transformation of Roman too little too late; not in line with the character we have been introduced nor unearthing any interesting qualities or observations laying beneath. And this is Roman J. Israel, Esq.’s biggest issue: for all of its lofty-sounding legalese and pronouncements of injustice, once you strip away a laudable performance, some flowery language and a wholly undercooked crime-thriller storyline, Gilroy’s film isn’t much of anything at all. Like a gang of fresh-faced Philosophy 101 Class students who after much debate couldn’t come to much of a conclusion at all, it’s fundamentally confused about what it wants to say and that fact is painfully obvious.
CONCLUSION: Denzel Washington sells ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ as best he can but his tic-loaded portrayal of a gifted esquire who bites from the apple of temptation isn’t enough to overlook the many moral inconsistencies and barebones thriller aspects that pollute Dan Gilroy’s disappointing second feature.