Film Review – Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Sometimes the most frustrating experience with a movie can be the clear signs of missed potential and dropped expectations. There’s usually a moment with an experience like that where one can see the point where the decisions that were made turn against the potential. In the instance of Roman J. Israel, Esq., that moment comes roughly halfway through the movie. The moment, or more so a series of them, concerns a response to a decision Israel (Denzel Washington) makes that betrays what the audience at this point has come to know is his character and idealism.

Israel is an attorney who’s spent his career as an activist alongside a well-respected and famous lawyer, working mostly in office and behind the scenes. When his partner suffers a debilitating heart attack, one of his former students George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a slick, smoothing talking lawyer now at the head of his own firm, is brought in to close the firm out, leaving Israel in search of a job. Pierce quickly swoops in though and offers Israel a position at his firm.

The idealist that he is, Israel initially turns Pierce down and instead goes in search of work at a non-profit, activist organization not unlike the ACLU. As the movie deliberately goes to show us, the world is different now than when Israel was a young activist and that unfortunately doesn’t leave much space for him. More coaxed in and subsumed than actively having made a decision, Israel finds himself talking to clients and working cases. However, the movie never gives us any moment that solidifies this as it simply cuts to Israel sitting in his new office at Pierce’s firm, leaving us to assume life’s financial obligations left him with no other option.

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It’s not a ruinous moment for the film but it is an indication of the troubled waters that lie ahead. Israel eventually makes a decision to do something that indeed betrays his ideology as well as the ethics of his profession. The decision, which becomes the linchpin the remainder of the movie is held upon, isn’t necessarily as problematic as the ways in which the movie itself dovetails from there. The second feature film from writer, director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), unfortunately falls prey to the dreaded “sophomore slump.”

Israel, in response to his decision to decides to cut-out, take a mini vacation and start down a new path counterintuitive to his previous self. And so does the movie, which until now, for the most part, has been rather lean, though at times padded with character, and headed towards something rather interesting. Instead, it begins to meander, and lose sight of direction. Scenes are incongruent to ones that proceed, and carefully constructed ideas get dropped.

In Roman Israel’s world, sound is both a source of protection and violation. He carries with him at all times an iPod loaded with his favorite jazz and soul songs. Headphones adorn his ears with a consistency that’s more associated to teenagers. However, Israel isn’t just a lover of music, he’s adverse to the intrusive sounds of a world he’s systemically marginalized in. He lives next to a building under construction where work goes on overnight, and his legally viable complaints to the city go unanswered. His iPod, as we see in a later scene, is more important to him than any other possession he carries.

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The crux is that these concepts are left as beginning ideas and get pushed to the wayside for a third act the seeks to bring back the focused tension of the first. To do so though, means ultimately betraying the larger ideals the movie seeks to align with in order to push a conclusion that martyrs its ideology so that the established, white, normative system that already exists gets to further what perhaps Israel can’t. It’s ultimately the biggest crime the movie commits.

The sound design by Ann Scibelli coupled with cinematography by Robert Elswit, are some of the movies most exemplary aspects and work strongly to convey Israel’s relationship his environments. To the film’s biggest credit goes Washington, who as always, brings a stellar performance that feels both nuanced and commanding. Unfortunately, things fall apart when it comes to overall direction. Apparently 12 minutes were cut from the version that was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September in hopes of tightening the film up. But, if what remains is as cobbled as this, it makes one wonder just how much more harm 12 minutes would’ve done.

There are enough solid, interesting ideas to be found in Roman J. Israel, Esq. to make for a rather profound movie with an amazing performance at its center. Disappointingly, the various elements, dropped ideas, and clichéd succumbing to normalized standards leaves for a mixed bag of a movie that never finds its footing.




Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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