America has a problem deep within its criminal justice system where if you’re unable to afford a top tier attorney you’re assigned an overworked public defender who will push you to accept whatever plea deal is presented before you. Writer-director Dan Gilroy focuses on an attorney who has dedicated his life to fighting injustice within an unjust system with Roman J. Israel, Esq. The Nightcrawler writer-director has a lot on his mind about the issues engrained within the criminal justice system but has hard time coalescing them into a truly effective story.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington) is an attorney who works behind the scenes in a law office in Downtown Los Angeles. His partner appears with their clients before the judge and jury and Roman works on filing the paperwork and doing research duties. Roman’s unusual law practice is thrown into upheaval when his partner suffers a debilitating heart attack. The law offices will be closing and a former student of Roman’s partner, George Pierce (Colin Farrell), will be handling the final cases. At first, Roman tries to find work in political activism for those seeking a knowledgeable attorney, inquiring with Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo) who works at a local non-profit. Desperate for money, Roman reluctantly accepts a position with George Pierce’s firm. But the unusual style of Roman and his idealistic ways causes conflict in the posh law offices. Soon Roman J. Israel, Esq. will have to examine his own life and career as he takes a job that runs counter to everything he’s ever stood for in his life.
The character as scripted by Gilroy and performed by Denzel Washington is truly fascinating. It’s never explicitly stated but you get the sense that Roman J. Israel, Esq. lands somewhere on the spectrum. He has absolutely no filter and his social interactions often suffer from his inability to soften his words. Amazingly, Roman has sections of the law memorized right down to their categorization number, a tool he utilizes to complain about the construction that runs late near his modest apartment. Here is a character that has shunned financial success to do the right thing. He’ll appear at work with his headphones around his neck, ready to pop on a classic track by Gil Scott Heron at a moment’s notice. The social awkwardness of Roman makes the connections that he forms with Maya and George over the three short weeks the film takes place more affecting because you can see him emerging from the shadows of solitude that has dominated his life for decades.
Where Roman J. Israel, Esq, both the character and the film, run into trouble is that they each try to bite off more than they can chew. The character injects himself too deeply into a particular case and that leads to him ethical lapses with dire consequences. The film uses this scenario as a means to escalate the stakes of the story far beyond the more interesting moral dilemma of turning your back on noble service in poverty for financial gain. Suddenly, the movie becomes a somewhat paranoid thriller that runs counter to the legal and ethical questions that worked so well in the earlier portions of the story. It’s simply a case of trying to do too much when it was working incredibly well as a tale about a square peg in a round hole.
It’s understandable how some can see Roman J. Israel, Esq. as a disappointment considering the level of righteous fire that Dan Gilroy brought to Nightcrawler. I’m more disappointed in Roman J. Israel, Esq. because it is constantly teetering on the brink of brilliance without ever finding it. It’s a well-acted movie with interesting characters that simply tries to do too much. There’s still plenty of entertaining moments throughout Roman J. Israel, Esq. thanks to another great performance by Denzel Washington and pointed moments that highlight the numerous flaws inherent in the criminal justice system.