Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September, Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. was met with a lukewarm critical reception. In response, Gilroy and star Denzel Washington went back to the drawing board, tightened the film’s pacing, cut out 12 minutes (and an entire subplot), and moved a scene with Colin Farrell’s character to earlier in the film. Done in the hope of making the film easier to digest and, in turn, receive a far kinder critical response, Roman J. Israel, Esq. was nonetheless released with the same mixed reception it had previously received in Toronto. Having only seen the theatrical cut, it is impossible to make comparisons between this version of the film and the one that screened in Toronto, but what is clear from the latest version of the film is that any flaws the critics found back in September are still true.
At over two hours in length, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is certainly still overlong, largely due to extraneous subplots that only serve to make the plot and the film as a whole more convoluted. The dialogue is rough, filled with legal jargon that not only confuses audiences but feels more like word vomit than dialogue with purpose. The end result of this muddled plot and poor dialogue is that the film must then resort to detailed monologues about what it all means and what is relevant that, honestly, comes off as heavy-handed even if it is essential to include. When the film focuses in on the morality of Roman (Denzel Washington) or of his new legal partner George Pierce (Colin Farrell), Roman J. Israel, Esq. soars. However, it is a film that is too often trying to find what it wants to be about and tries to juggle too many balls. Unfortunately, Gilroy may not be a great juggler.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is one of those films that is a challenge to give a middling review to, as it does so much right and is often so enjoyable that there is part of you that makes you want to give it a stronger review. Much of the reason why this is the case is in the thematic elements of the film. Following the heart attack and coma of his law partner, Roman J. Israel is thrust into an awkward position. For multiple decades, he worked with William Henry Jackson in a small law firm where Jackson went to court. But with Jackson gone, Israel, a legal savant with a photographic memory and Asperger’s syndrome, is caught in limbo. The executor of Jackson’s estate needs to close the law firm as it has been operating at a deficit for years due to Jackson’s activist inclinations. Furthermore, all assets and cases are to be transferred to George Pierce, a big shot defense attorney who runs four law firms in Los Angeles alone. For the idealist Israel, Pierce represents everything he despises about the legal profession. He pleas his clients to speed up the process, charges exorbitant prices, and celebrates his win ratio (while skewing the numbers in his favor). For Israel, he has no idea why his idol would entrust his law firm to such a low-down snake in the grass and, as such, he has no desire to work for Pierce. However, after he is unable to find a job elsewhere, Israel begrudgingly joins forces with Pierce and kicks the plot of the film into motion.
It is here that Roman J. Israel, Esq. reveals one of its greatest themes: ideals and passion versus the need for money. Driving around in a BMW wearing designer suits, Pierce has chosen his path. Though he is a man who took a class with Jackson in law school and, by his own admittance, stayed in law only because of Jackson, he has sold out. He helped out Jackson for years by kicking some cases his way, but otherwise he has reaped the financial rewards of the legal business. For Roman, however, he refuses to give into this temptation. He is an idealist who preaches activist legislation and fights against the system. He fights for the little guy and is working on a lengthy legal brief that will completely change the plea bargain system in America. The two could not be more different in practice, but are both on more fragile ground than may meet the eye at first.
Desiring a way to become a better, more respected lawyer, George sets out to change the law firm for the better. He raises the prices for a more personalized service but increases the budgetary allowance for pro bono cases, intends to become more involved in activism, and wants to help Roman finish his brief to change plea bargains. For George, bringing Roman on board is his way of changing the perception of his law firm, increasing profits, yet also actually causing change. To him, it is the best of both worlds. George, as everyone wants to be able to, tries to balance his passions and ideals with the basic need to make money. Roman, however, goes the opposite direction. In a financial hole, he betrays his own ideals to make a quick buck and it winds up leading him into a downward, frenetic spiral. It is this morality play and balance between finances and virtue that Roman J. Israel, Esq. plays with and the question it poses to its audience. To what extent can one “sell out” and still retain their virtues and ideals without a hint of hypocrisy? Can anyone truly push off the need for the money and retain their “innocence” and “purity”? To Roman himself, this pursuit becomes impossible as the temptation grows. For George, there is no point in one’s life where it is too late to try and return to one’s ideals. It is the depiction of this balance that makes the film so strong and, at times, powerful as it is a fight everyone must face in their lives.
Where the film is certainly more heavy-handed is in its commentary regarding the legal profession. Akin to Nightcrawler’s critiques of the news business that champions “if it bleeds, it leads”, Roman J. Israel, Esq. shows the way in which lawyers turn clients and cases into chances to win or lose while disregarding the best interest of their clients. The problem here, however, is that dialogue often highlights this fact. Compared to the nuanced treatment of the balance between need versus want that Gilroy crafts, he seemingly cannot help but point out the ills of the legal profession. Prosecutors consistently mention their win ratio as a reason for why a defendant should accept a plea bargain or else they will absolutely face the stiffest possible sentence. George even throws around his win ratio while raising his prices for more personalized service, all while dumping all clients with Roman and asking him to push for them to accept the higher prices due to the better representation they will receive with the law firm. When negotiating with prosecutors, the defense attorney has to cope with the district attorney throwing around phrases such as “on behalf of the people” while, as Roman points out, the people are nowhere in the courtroom. The legal system, at present, is one that prizes wins and clearing the courts over defendants receiving a fair trial. Fearmongering is the name of the game, encouraging defendants to just admit guilt to receive a fair trial. Defendants with sensitive information are given more negotiating power, but given no protection against those that may harm them. All of this is true and all of this is in Roman J. Israel, Esq. and this is obvious to anybody who watches the film because Roman pretty much says all of this. He is given platforms in the courtroom, at civil rights meetings, on dates with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), and at work with George to simply espouse these beliefs with on-the-nose dialogue that may strike a chord, but is just too obvious. Compared to the smart way in which he demonstrated how systems can corrupt even those with the best intentions in Nightcrawler, Gilroy practically spells it out here. Thus, though the film may be thematically similar to Nightcrawler, it simply lacks in the execution of these ideas. We see the problems in the legal system (as were previously shown in the news business) and in the issues concerning consumer culture, but Roman J. Israel, Esq. too often tells the audience about them instead of showing the ills and when it shows the ills, it cannot help but wink at the audience and point at them as if saying, “See, this is what I was talking about.”
It is clear that Roman is not just a mouthpiece for Gilroy’s own ideals, but is also a legal jargon machine. Once he gets started, he will not stop. On dates with Maya or in conversations with George, he makes heads spin as he rambles about any old idea he has using SAT words that will make audiences wish they had brought a dictionary with them for the film. For a film that is largely just a morality play about need versus want and about exposing the problems in the legal system, Roman J. Israel, Esq.’s dialogue makes the issue feel far more complicated. Practically every film starring a lawyer and the legal profession concerns itself with the idea of justice and the flaws in the system, especially when it concerns innocent people or when having to defend clients who the attorneys know are guilty. Roman J. Israel Esq., though not a cliché courtroom drama (in fact, there is just one sequence in a courtroom, nor is it about a single case), plays with many of the same ideas as other courtroom dramas but just never manages to communicate them in a coherent manner. The amount of times Roman goes on a monologue about injustice and problems within the system only for Gilroy’s camera to cut to Colin Farrell’s confused face is far too many.
This issue with dialogue is conducive to the film’s issues with editing. As previously mentioned, Roman J. Israel, Esq. was heavily re-worked in the hopes of improving its critical response before theatrical release. Unfortunately, it feels like it was re-edited and re-cut multiple times in drastic ways. It is a film that seems to stop, start, jerk, and stutter its way through the plot as it changes direction, ideas, and intents consistently. It never really hits a flow where its narrative progression can be seen and experienced; instead it is a film that floats around awkwardly, toys with pointless subplots, and beats around the bush until it finally decides which direction it wants to go.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. shouldn’t have been a film that left audiences scratching their heads wondering what its plot was really about, yet this occurred because of how incomprehensible the editing can be at times. There are echoes and fingerprints of past cuts of the film lingering within this film as scenes lack any transition between one another and seem to have been cut-and-pasted into various places within the film in an attempt to have them make sense. For example, there is a scene where Roman and George argue in Roman’s old law firm. The scene ends, yet the camera lingers on George as Roman leaves. George turns around, pokes his head into Roman’s office, and then the camera finally cuts. He never does anything in the office, the film never returns to the office, and he did not touch anything. It is a minor moment on its own, but it is a problem that endemic to the film and consistently repeats itself. All of these issues with cohesion and comprehensibility lead to the film that feels rather disjointed. It takes too long to find its groove and really only picks up the pace towards the end as the film finally discovers the direction it wants to go in and directs all of its efforts towards that pursuit.
On the other hand, Roman J. Israel, Esq. features strong acting. As in Nightcrawler, Gilroy demonstrates an ability to elicit great performances. As the lead, Denzel Washington plays a character that is definitively not within his wheelhouse. Typically, he stars as flawed but demonstrative characters. He has made his name for being a loud and confident actor. Yet, here, he plays a man with Asperger’s syndrome who fumbles in talking over the phone with Maya. Slipping into the skin of Roman and delivering a performance that is not some caricature of a man with Asperger’s syndrome but takes great care to understand the nuances of the man’s mind, Washington manages to turn in one of his finest performances in recent memory. Alongside him, Colin Farrell is equally strong even if his character is largely relegated to just being the foil of Roman. Immoral when Roman is moral and moral when Roman is immoral, Farrell manages to exude great confidence and charisma in a role that shows why he has been an underappreciated leading man of Hollywood. Though not the greatest at choosing films to perform in, Farrell is almost always one of the strongest actors in his films and that trend continues with Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Visually, the film has moments that are reminiscent of Nightcrawler, namely the definitively digital way in which Gilroy captures scenes at night. Under golden street lights, characters walk the streets at night, which is often when many of the film’s most crucial moments occur. Roman calls the cops on construction workers who are working after curfew, establishing him as a stickler for the rules. A conversation between Roman and Maya ignites the flame of their relationship while occurring under the cover of night. Roman is mugged on his way home in an incident that spurs his change from idealism to materialism. Roman often speaks to George in the street at night after a long day of work with the lights of the city all around him. An audacious and ambitious slow camera tilt and twist downward into an alleyway occurs right before Roman betrays his own moral stances, creating this disorienting yet gorgeous image as Gilroy’s camera moves down to the alleyway. Though a lot of Roman J. Israel, Esq. does take place at night, these night-set moments evoke very noticeable visual parallels to Nightcrawler due to how Gilroy lights these scenes with nothing but available lighting. Visually, Roman J. Israel, Esq. may not be outright stunning or even impeccably strong, but it gets the job done and creates strong images – mainly due to lighting – that allows the film to have some visual flair along the way.
A definitive step back from Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq. nonetheless works in similar territory in crafting a film about the dangers and threats that selling out or seeking nothing but financial gain can cause for an individual while also demonstrating how the “system” can lead an otherwise moral individual into an immoral lifestyle. In showing this balance between idealism and financial need, Roman J. Israel, Esq. creates a gripping character study that just too often gets in its own way. A tighter final cut, less verbose dialogue, and less heavy-handedness regarding the issues it points out in the justice system would have allowed Roman J. Israel, Esq. to flirt with greatness if not simply be one of the finest modern legal films of the 21st century. All of the parts and the talent are there but unfortunately none of the execution is there as the film trips, stumbles, and bumbles its way to becoming an average film that is fine entertainment, but almost a sad watch as it is hard to see so much potential be squandered.