Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, told the story of a man who embraced the most exploitative elements of a broken socioeconomic system and used them for personal gain. The suggestion being that when the easiest way to the top is upon the backs of others, maybe it’s time for a fundamental change in how we do things. His follow-up film doubles down on this message in a way that’s less explicitly thrilling, but just as damning to the power structures in America.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the name of the film and the name of the character at its center. Played with a level of strangeness not often seen in the work of Denzel Washington, Roman is the polar opposite of Nightcralwer’s Lou Bloom in just about every way. He’s not interested in money or material success. He’s not interested in lording power over anybody. He only wants to help out the disadvantaged with whatever tools he has.
What tools does he have? The law, mostly. Roman truly believes that pointed litigation is the most effective way to alter a system which classically makes victims of the underprivileged, and he’s so committed to this idea that the two-man firm where he spends his days is barely kept afloat. A sad truth of the legal market is that morals are often pushed aside in order to make a buck (take it from me, a former foreclosure paralegal who can attest to this truth). When the other half of his firm suffers a heart attack which leaves him in a vegetative state, the plan is to collect any outstanding payments and close the business. Roman, always an outsider to the financial end of things, is left at a loss. There’s simply no way to keep things running, and even if there were, it would mean that Roman would have to appear in court and – gasp! – engage in public speaking.
You see, Roman is a bit of an oddball. He’s behind on fashion, rocks a dated iPod (a crazy thing to say), and is almost completely worthless when it comes to social grace. Often times his strong convictions are at odds with his inability to express them in a way that’s digestible in a world of legal propriety. So it’s with some reticence that a friend of his former partner, George (Colin Farrell, who I had no clue was even in this movie) brings Roman on to do basic filings and such for his own powerful firm.
The altruism of Roman J. Israel has no small effect on his new colleagues, and the mentality of a less socially charitable law firm has its effects on the newly desperate Roman J. Israel.
To say any more about the plot would be to spoil its unconventional nature. Gilroy’s atypical narrative structure may be off-putting to some, and I suspect that’s what has spawned so many lukewarm reviews. It’s not an unfair assessment, but once you fall in step with the film’s intentions/style, it’s quite dense and engaging. As a companion piece to Nightcrawler, Gilroy’s latest is interested in tackling the same themes (the cost/benefit analysis of seeking success in a system designed to serve greed), albeit in a less genre-minded manner.
The real joy here is watching Denzel Washington do a decidedly different thing than we’re used to seeing. Not to say he’s anything less than an incredible performer at all times, but he’s typically such a powerful presence that it sometimes becomes difficult to forget that you’re watching the one and only DEN-ZEL. Here he embodies Roman immediately and completely. Within minutes I forgot who I was watching, and it wasn’t until I sat down to sling these words that I even began to regard Roman J. Israel as a fiction. Whatever your feelings are on the film as a whole, there’s no denying that this leading performance is one of the best of 2017.
I’d love to have some face time with Dan Gilroy to see where he stands regarding the viability/value of altruism and how it relates to his two iconic (at least to me) characterizations of our system and the men who stand to succeed or fail within it.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.