Roman J Israel, Esq
Following the Oscar-nominated success of his directorial debut, Nightcrawler, writer-director Dan Gilroy switches focus from the neon amorality of car-crash television to Roman J Israel, Esq, a character study hitting the narrative beats of a legal thriller, held together by an empathetic, measured turn by Denzel Washington. Swinging an embossed, clunky briefcase, Washington plays an analogue lawyer living in a digital time – even his hermetic LA apartment is being eclipsed by a glass-and-steel skyscraper.
Facing the terminal illness of his legal partner, Roman is pulled in by George Pierce’s (Colin Farrell) clinical law firm – using his savant skills for one of the city’s leading organisations, growing more distant from his activist roots and progressive conduct day-by-day. Faced with defending a young man caught up in a store clerk robbery gone wrong, a stroke of fate (and Roman’s idealism) forces a tragic string of circumstances into play. The protagonist is forced to reckon with the arc of his decision, entangled inside the same system he’s spent decades helping others escape.
Gilroy writes and directs with such panache, Roman J Israel, Esq has the thrumming pace of a 70s thriller. The main character is easy to root for, and his tragic flaw is, as with most figures in Greek tragedies, also his driving force: an idealism, mired in nostalgia for an unrecoverable past. Faced with a blossoming romance with Maya Alston (a luminous Carmen Ejogo), Roman is torn between present and future, self and society. The two-hour running time allows Gilroy to puppeteer the film’s many identities with ease – it’s at once an oddball character study, examination on the inequalities of the US prison system, and a more straightforward legal drama – while allowing its characters to surprise us. Farrell’s, in particular, at first appears as straightforward as the cut of his suit, but an eleventh hour belies other depths.
“I just can’t seem to remove myself from what’s happened in my life.” Spoken by Roman midway through the film, this line would be hard to sell were it not for the plagal cadence in Washington’s voice, the bulking shrug of his shoulders beneath those large, 70s-styled lapels. In a canny flip on his usually heroic roles, the actor gives Roman a lived-in quality; we can see the churning cogs of his fractured idealism, the weight of his professional decay. It’s one of the best performances of Washington’s career, and the year (yet the film was sorely missing from end-of 2017 lists). Some have complained Gilroy struggles to weave all the movie’s parts into a taut, single thread – but it’s exactly this shaggy dog quality that earns the picture its charm. While it brims with as many subplots as Roman’s briefcase brims with legal briefs, Gilroy is able to bundle the dyspepsia and confusion of the American prison system, ironing it out into a moving, oddball character study, which is immensely affecting. Shooting between the cracks of apartments, swooping around steel behemoth law offices and rained-out, noir-like alleyways, it’s rare for Hollywood to depict LA in such an honest way.
Roman J Israel, Esq has a tempo similar to the staccato jazz on the protagonist’s iPod, careening off at uncertain moments to depict mundane city incidences, or to pause on Roman having yet another PB&J sandwich. Midway, the film wrests this character from the cacophonous LA streets to the seaside, where we see him tiptoe from, then embrace, the tide. It’s a minor, sweetly intimate sequence, and a rare one of unfettered joy in a movie at times fraught with tension from the fallout of Roman’s decisions. After a life eschewing the easy route for activism and a Sisyphean battle against the US criminal system, for an afternoon only, Roman bends – casts himself into the engulfing, beautiful tide. Audiences, too, will hopefully find themselves caught up in the sweep of Roman J Israel, Esq, a tender, humanist work, bolstered by a career-best performance from its star.
Roman J Israel, Esq is released nationwide on 2nd February 2018.
Watch the trailer for Roman J Israel, Esq here: