You can install a gap between Denzel Washington’s two front teeth. You can dress him in baggy suits that make Donald Trump’s wardrobe look well-proportioned. You can pretend he’s pear-shaped, require he speak in vocal-fried monotone, demand he deny his costars eye contact—and if you do all of this, he’ll still be Denzel Washington, always and forever. The proof is in his latest, Roman J. Israel, Esq., the new film from writer-director Dan Gilroy, last meaningfully heard from in his 2014 directorial debut, Nightcrawler.
Considerably less time has passed since we last heard from Washington, who released his third effort as director, Fences, around this time in 2016. The post-Fences path that led him through Hollywood into Gilroy’s employ must have been serpentine, though it isn’t hard to imagine Washington finding the appeal in making the leap from August Wilson to Lou Bloom. Nightcrawler is the same circus amorality Denzel has gravitated towards, off and on, since Training Day, and while their specifics vary, you can spot the family resemblance if you squint: They’re both set in the sweaty, abandoned world of Los Angeles, they both fixate on men lacking in scruples and they both hinge on reinvention of their leading men.
Think of Roman J. Israel, Esq. as a bridge joining Nightcrawler and Training Day, without much of the edge of either. A Gilroy movie should fall well within Washington’s wheelhouse, and Roman J. Israel, Esq. suits him, but one senses the film may’ve lost its teeth somewhere in the transition from page to screen. Like Nightcrawler’s, its protagonist is a relentless advocate, but unlike Nightcrawler’s, the title character in Roman J. Israel, Esq. advocates for others and not for himself, at least in the beginning. The film emphasizes a social consciousness that Nightcrawler necessarily ignores, understanding that people in bad legal circumstances are there in part because of the choices they make, but also because they have limited choices to make in the first place. “Each of us,” Roman opines at one point, “is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Roman’s choices are similarly narrow. He’s also greater than the worst thing he does in the film, which admittedly is pretty bad. Roman is the proverbial man behind the curtain at his law firm, a two-man outfit focused on civil rights litigation. When his partner, former law professor William Henry Jackson, has a sudden stroke, Roman is forced, for the first time in decades, to leave the comfort of his office, where he spends his days corralled in by towering stacks of paperwork, and set foot in front of a judge. He isn’t much for social interaction, though, and no sooner does he step out than he is hit with a hefty fine for contempt. Things go downhill from there: George Pierce (Colin Farrell), Jackson’s old student turned hotshot lawyer, is brought aboard to help shutter their firm, leaving Roman without a paycheck and without a sense of personal identity.
George offers Roman a job at his own firm, and Roman proves a poor fit, bungling cases against George’s advice and butting heads with his co-workers. Maybe around an hour in, Roman sells out, turning his back on his principles to catch up with the modern world. This change of heart is predicated on a twist that’s wholly out of Roman’s character, except that the film confronts him with the temptation of trading on his beliefs and exiting the arena in which he’s fought his entire career in exchange for the finer things. Gilroy argues there isn’t room for personal gain in the world of legal activism, but realizing this is too obvious a point on which to hang a movie, he buttresses Roman’s existential crisis with personal relationships, such as his professional to amicable bond with George, or his kinship with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a lawyer working for a nonprofit advocacy outfit.
These people are caught in Roman’s idiosyncratic orbit, puzzled by his quirks, moved by his profound selflessness, this man who’d rather risk a beating by the cops than let a dead homeless man end up anonymously incinerated with the rest of L.A.’s deceased vagrants. That’s no small thing. The problem Roman J. Israel, Esq. runs into, though, is constriction. The film has no room to breathe. Gilroy invests too much in Roman’s connection to George and to Maya, and neither can cohere as either foils or as characters. After premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Gilroy trimmed around twelve minutes of footage and shuffled a few scenes to give the story momentum. But clocking in at two hours, Roman J. Israel, Esq. could’ve been better as a half an hour shorter or a half an hour longer.
George’s slick persona belies a latent longing to fight the good fight as Roman does; Maya both empathizes with and admires him. Neither of their feelings for Roman are fleshed out enough to give their subplots proper ballast, which is bizarre, because both characters could make for fine shells for containing Roman’s moral dilemma. (Picturing a version of the film where George plays Felix to Roman’s Oscar as they battle systemic inequality in the courts is frustratingly easy.) Nightcrawler felt dangerous. Roman J. Israel, Esq. feels conventional by comparison. Gilroy isn’t a drudge, of course, and Washington is Washington. If nothing else, the film rides on his mesmerizing performance and on Gilroy’s talent for character study. But after Nightcrawler, seeing Roman J. Israel, Esq. coast on craft rather than on transgression is nothing short of a letdown.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Nazneen Contractor, DeRon Horton, Joseph David-Jones
Release Date: November 17, 2017
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.