ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. Review
Director: Dan Gilroy
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Google the term “mixed bag” and it will ask if you meant “ROMAN J. ISRAEL ESQ.” Dan Gilroy’s NIGHTCRAWLER follow-up is an even more perplexing character study, filled with quirky, perspective-based experimentation. Flat out, this movie is a lot, with a heavy-handed, almost old school sensibility that doesn’t always cohere with its new school concepts. The journey becomes confusing not only plot wise, but for its execution that whizzes around with pinball-like aplomb. The ambitions of Gilroy’s vision, coupled with a hyper-dedicated Denzel Washington performance, swing for the fences, and accidentally break a window. That said, the efforts on display have such specificity and spirit that instead of coming out as completely bad, ROMAN J. ISRAEL ESQ. is birthed as an imperfect, but bizarre, outlier in today’s cinematic climate, with some cultish flourishes to boot.
For Denzel Washington and Dan Gilroy both, making a film about a delusional loser is a nice change of pace. The titular Roman Israel is a formerly spirited civil rights activist and expert in law who worked behind the scenes for a popular lawyer. After 40 years of financially and psychologically taxing work, Israel is found without a job, and without purpose in an ever changing world. Even the activism scene has moved beyond his strong headed, old school beliefs. A savant in every single facet of the American legal system, Israel is given a new chance at a hip, prosperous Law Firm. Passionate as he is, he struggles with his own feelings of resentment while dealing with actual lives on the line. It’s an episodic character study that seems to lose track, then regain track of its own narrative spine, mostly managing to successfully tie things together, if not getting a little knotted up. Like NIGHTCRAWLER, it’s ultimately about someone navigating the rules of a sick and complicated societal game, though this time, humanity is thrown into the equation, to messy results.
Next year’s overdone Halloween costume, GUARANTEED
With this film, Dan Gilroy doubles down on his so-far established oeuvre. His obsession with details and cinematic style being the product of the very specific perspective of his protagonist feel like visualizations of dense novels. The way he crafts personal character environments, like offices and apartments, for example, drip with intrigue and purpose, begging to be observed and acknowledged. This extends to production design and costuming, with Israel’s tools and ensembles being culturally obsolete but personally effective for his purpose. His suits are raggy and way too big for him, evidencing him not being able to “fit in.” Groan away, but that’s heavy-handed, functional language. It’s overstuffed, yet playful, filled with ticks up the wazoo. He repeats dialogue with Coen character abandon, loves his music that he listens to on a walkman very deeply, and really knows his law. Like NIGHTCRAWLER’s Lou Bloom, he struggles being amongst other people, but uniquely, this film introduces a sense of humanity that is simultaneously jarring and touching.
The first telling ingredient is perhaps the main reason to recommend this movie to anyone, and that’s Denzel Washington’s performance: an unholy cross between Rupert Pupkin and Forrest Gump. He lays on the affectations with thick pleasure, and why wouldn’t he? This is surely a juicy script, with a lot for an actor of Denzel’s caliber to really play with, and play he does! Yes, he’s a walking bundle of quirks, but they’re delivered with that charm and heft his fans come to expect and love. Washington makes clear the emotional and psychological toll that comes with trying to understand the rules in order to change them for the sake of making the world a better place. Juxtaposing that comes with some looks of actual joy, if not bewilderment, at the idea of being happy with one’s self. It feels like the perfect pay-off for observing and getting to really understand, and empathize, with a character who isn’t traditionally heroic.
Step aside, Tommy Lee Jones looking up from a newspaper he’s reading. There’s a new reaction photo in town
There’s undeniable worth in the aesthetics Gilroy can pull off as a director, but his formal experiments here have proven more confusing than effective, if not at least interesting on paper. A big complaint of NIGHTCRAWLER was its misfit rock and roll score that threw off the viewing experience for some, even though it fulfilled the movie inside its hero’s head. The same concept tracks here. Thusly, upon entering its second half, ROMAN J. ISRAEL ESQ. detours into a paranoia-driven fever dream, with only the occasional sideline character (a delightfully smarmy Colin Farrell, or Carmen Ejogo maintaining some sense of reason and sweetness) to ground the world around him. Otherwise, the film pivots between wild musical sweeps, an increasingly sweaty performance from Denzel, and eclectic editing and cinematography patterns. It gets so off-kilter on a sensory level that the plot ends up revealing deeper convolutions, such as the self-set timeline, or even the viewer’s trust staked in Roman. It doesn’t help that the character who is starting to lose it mainly speaks in marble-mouthed legal jargon and outspoken thematic stamps. At one point, Colin Farrell’s character finally calls out that Roman is no longer making sense. It makes for a telling reveal, but comes a little too late to justify what has already become a confounding and somewhat frustrating journey.
“Yes, the cowboy man is still following me . . . how long must I allow this?”
Despite all of its individually interesting qualities, ROMAN J. ISRAEL ESQ. is hard to qualify as consistently of quality without major caveats. It’s like Ridley Scott directed a shelved Billy Wilder script: a bold and unique effort that doesn’t connect entirely upon impact. Much like the protagonists of ACE IN THE HOLE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Roman flies too close to the sun, and only gets a split second to lament it before his wings melt. Similarly, the film unfortunately can’t fully justify its experimental streak, and instead trips over its own language through to the end while still trying to say something. This is the kind of film that could have a life as an anomaly with staunch defenders, praising its heart-in-the-right-place ambition. It’s unfortunate that even those viewers will have to reckon with ROMAN J. ISRAEL ESQ.’s stunningly messy exhibitionism.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend