Dan Gilroy, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (2017)
Once in a while an intelligent and worthy film comes out of Hollywood that demonstrates someone there still knows how to make meaty movies that provide much food for thought. Dan Gilroy’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a character study of an idealistic, reform-minded lawyer who for a long time finds living up to his principles fairly easy but through an unfortunate change in circumstances is forced to confront the clash between them and the expedient pragmatism of the society he lives in. The decisions he makes as a result have devastating consequences for him and the people around him.
For many years, Roman J Israel (Denzel Washington) has toiled away in a small law firm, preparing briefs for his fellow partner who takes on cases involving small injustices done to the underprivileged. The partner dies of a heart attack and the law firm is sold to George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of the partner and now a successful if slick criminal defence lawyer in his own right. Initially Israel balks at working for Pierce and tries to find employment with a non-profit organisation run by an activist called Maya (Carmen Ejogo); but after a run-in with stridently ideological feminist friends of hers, Israel is forced to slink back to Pierce and accept employment with his firm. Unable to conform to the new firm’s culture and unwilling to compromise his beliefs and values, Israel ends up antagonising everyone including Pierce in the firm. An encounter with a black man in prison on robbery charges, being assaulted by a beggar and duped by another poor man leave Israel questioning his beliefs. From there he decides he’ll be just like regular folks, working and doing things opportunistically; but because his character is socially inept, he commits one mistake after another and ends up turning in a dangerous criminal to the law to collect reward money which violates his employer firm’s agreement to defend the criminal. Israel repents of this deed but the damage it causes cannot be undone.
Washington was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and the reason is easy to see: he is completely absorbed in the character of Israel with all his quirks and eccentricities. Farrell plays Pierce quite straight and minimally: the character potentially could have been one-dimensional but Farrell’s portrayal of a man who rediscovers his inner voice and conscience from Israel’s example, and who comes to care for Israel and his legacy seems quite convincing. Farrell as corporate legal shark becomes an excellent foil for Washington’s workaholic idealist activist savant: as the latter starts to lose his moral compass and something of his individuality, the former starts to regain his. The rest of the cast provides good if not very outstanding support.
The style of the film illustrates the discomfort that Israel has in adapting to the cut-throat corporate legal world: he is clearly a creature of the 1970s, an age of civil rights activism. He dresses in the clothes of the period, much to others’ amusement, and frequently wears headphones to listen to the soul music of that decade. The music soundtrack, updated in its instrumentation and vocals, gives a distinct smoky flavour to the film and lifts it above other contemporary realist legal dramas.
Concentrating as it does on Israel and his inability to conform to a more superficial and uncaring society in which greed is good and encourages selling out and back-stabbing, the film is overly long and the plot is vague and sketchy. The events that occur as a result of Israel’s mistakes and failure to live up to his high ideals seem to have been inserted into the film as an after-thought though they are clearly driving the film in its second half. Perhaps the film spends too much time on Israel’s inner conflict and his quirks, and not enough on what Pierce and other characters think of him or try to do with him. For all its flaws, this film is worthwhile watching as an example of what Hollywood can do and could be doing more of, if the movie industry in the US were less obsessed with maximising profits and pursuing shallow values, and paid more attention to portraying the lives and misfortunes of the downtrodden, how they are exploited by the government, corporations, greedy individuals and criminal elements alike. Roman J. Israel, Esq. would certainly approve.