Director: Dan Gilroy
Stars: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo
The Nightcrawler director returns with another burrowing character investigation. Where his previous reflected a gasoline flavoured nihilism and cast Los Angeles in sickly hues, this latest takes a more traditional approach. Denzel Washington stars as the titular character and his casting should tip some viewers to the style of character Gilroy is interested in to some extent.
Israel is a righteous, principled individual; a defense attorney who has spent his career as the backroom man at a two-bit operation, a small and noble firm which has worked to advocate civil rights for its clients while simultaneously failing resolutely to turn a profit. Israel shuffles around in an ill-fitting suit, prideful of his photographic memory. When his partner suffers a heart attack, the firm falters and goes into administration, in spite of Israel’s hopes to take over and step forward into the courts. However, his agitated manner often acts as a barrier to his best intentions.
It’s cookie-cutter Washington material, up to a point. Those anti-social tics intimated above are very much holdovers from Gilroy’s last. Where Nightcrawler found Jake Gyllenhaal inhabiting a socially awkward sociopath, Roman J. Israel Esq. takes the usual holier-than-though Denzel performance and funnels it through all manner of similarly ingrained foibles. Like Lou Bloom, Israel has a meticulous thought process, adhering to his own particular code. The difference is that where Bloom was revealed as without conscience, Israel strives to maintain a level of integrity. When he fails to, he finds himself in contempt of his own value system. He is haunted and easily shook.
Following a succession of trials and tribulations, Israel finds himself eroding. The ‘esquire’ at the end of his name places him “slightly above a gentlemen, below a knight”. This is his concept of himself. Yet for all his attempts at walking the high road he loses, finding himself on the receiving end of a series of perceived injustices. So he slips and takes advantage of privileged information.
It’s some of Washington’s most interesting work in a while, and though yet another Oscar nod at this stage in his career feels like as much of a token gesture as Streep’s, this is one of his worthiest appearances, certainly when set aside last year’s Fences.
For his part Gilroy presents his story in a far more casual style than his previous. The legal setting of much of the narrative requires Roman J. Israel Esq. to most often take place in a series of rooms and offices. This in itself means the film feels far less dynamic than Nightcrawler which roamed the seedy night. A mid-film breather by the ocean feels like a palette cleanser, but it retains this same sense of leisurely calm. While its main character is a treasure trove, the film surrounding him is a little too pedestrian.
As Israel moves his own boundaries of what is permissible, Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo play supporting roles as the devils and angels on his shoulders respectively. Farrell is George, a slick, greasy-seeming lawyer whose mere existence seems to spark Israel’s diminished rectitude, while Ejogo plays civil rights volunteer Maya who takes a shine to him and reminds him of his pride and integrity, perhaps more than he’d like.
Interestingly, Gilroy posits that it’s a two-way street. As Israel compromises, George takes an active interest in pro-bono work and philanthropy, in effect improving himself and his business. It is here, as in the central character’s conscience, that Roman J. Israel Esq. sets itself as a progression for Gilroy, potentially a transitional piece. Yet it ultimately feels less dynamic. It’s a good picture, but it falls short of feeling like a great one.