Movie Review: Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the kind of movie that will challenge and unsettle an audience in meaningful ways.
When I walked out of the theater after Roman J. Israel, Esq. I felt like I’d just gone ten rounds. The layered and often opaque discussions of law, philosophy and social critique are unapologetic and unflinching. They walk you down mentally like a weary pugilist. Much like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, I am not sure that I consider this a great or enjoyable movie, but it certainly is a powerful one that is going to force you to grapple with heavy ideas and doesn’t much care if you “like” it. Much like Denzel Washinton’s complex and fallible Mr. Israel, this film doesn’t compromise when it comes to the issues.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)
Roman Israel is a defense attorney and civil rights advocate with a burning desire to reform the legal system. Unfortunately, he is also introverted, argumentative, inflexible and possibly somewhere on the autistic spectrum. All of this leaves him grappling with a society that he cannot comfortably engage with on many levels. When his long-time partner dies, he is forced to work for a prestigious law firm that is more concerned with billable hours than justice. As he struggles with what seems like the bitter sunset of a once brilliant career, he begins to make desperate choices that call into question his moral character.
Upright and Unbending.
At the heart of this movie is the question of whether it is possible to always be upright in a degenerate world, and if possible is it even desirable. Roman has always followed his inner compass, despite it leading him to confrontation, loneliness and even bitterness. He was protected from the worst repercussions by his partner’s influence, but has to reemerge into society after his death. The times have changed and he is even more of a prodigy in the current culture than he was as a young idealist.
Director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) does a fantastic job of using setting and sound work to highlight this incongruity. Roman’s apartment is a time capsule from the era of the civil rights struggle, his clothes are ill-fitting and dated, and he listens to an anachronistic music player that provides much of the soundtrack to the film. Roman is a man out of time, and the film presents this cleverly.
Roman as a character is a lightning rod for confrontation. He has a rigid set of scruples and always speaks up for them. Instead of making Roman into a lion of morality, the film actually shows how doing the right thing at the wrong time or place can be counterproductive. When he hears a dirty joke, he challenges his supervisor and gets yanked from a case he had strong standing on. When he’s told to settle a plea with an unjust sentence, he goes over his partner’s head and winds up making the problem worse for the client. He derails a talk on the legal standing of civil unrest by trying to make some young men give their seats to young women standing behind them, inciting them to call him sexist and drive him out of the meeting. Thanks to strong character writing and performances, this approach allows both intention and effect to be explored in a meaningful way.
A large part of what is effective in this film relies on tremendous performances from the cast. Denzel Washington is as good as he’s ever been, playing a fallible and idiosyncratic character who gains your empathy despite doing things that might alienate you. The performance is deep and nuanced and most importantly restrained, which is the one aspect that Washington sometimes neglects in his roles. This character is larger than life, or at least stranger than it, and a deft portrayal lets Roman present himself to us.
The supporting cast is likewise excellently performed and written. Carmen Ejogo plays an advocate and activist who provides both a key to Roman’s past and bridge to his interior life. Colin Farrell gives a supremely understated performance, playing a seemingly mirror opposite to Washinton’s character. Both are written so effectively that its a pleasure to watch. They grow and change as your understanding and perceptions shift during the story, so when you finally see them in totality it’s a revelation.
The nuts and bolts of this film are highly polished. There are fantastic shots that subtly reinforce the undertones of the film. A long vertical panning shot from the skyline down to a dingy alley highlights the questionable situation Roman finds himself in at the moment. The film uses high and low angles to frame sequences with hints of moral importance. In a film that is forcing the audience to grapple with hard issues, the camera often lingers on a single scene for an unsettling amount of time. You could strip out the soundwork and get much of the implication of the story on a visceral level.
The Dark Night of the Soul.
I came away from Roman J. Israel, Esq. with the feeling that this is a film that is meant to challenge you on nearly every level. It’s not an easy film to watch. The plot builds excruciatingly slowly, and you only get the importance of certain events towards the very end. The cinematography is complex and sometimes off-putting. The characters are also messy and complex people that can be often unlikable. The subjects of person versus society, person of color versus American society, young versus old, and compromise versus principled fight are thorny and not meant to be taken lightly.
Much like the Book of Job, we’re watching a man try to stay right with his values while getting kicked in the teeth and even beginning to hate those values. The power in the film is the camera never looking away from the imperfect pursuit of perfect justice.