In Dan Gilroy’s film about a truth-telling lawyer exposing injustices, a fascinating character is left woefully undeveloped to accommodate plot contrivances.Photograph by Columbia / Everett
The most eccentric major-category nominee in this year’s Oscars is Denzel Washington, as Best Actor, for his leading role in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” which ran for a week in limited release and threeweeks in wide release before vanishing from most theatres. To date, ithas taken in only eleven million dollars at the box office—& I can’thelp wondering whether an anticipation of Osoto nominations and are-release was part of its distribution mã sản phẩm. In any case, it’s backnow (& also available khổng lồ stream, though at the price of a movieticket) and well worth seeing—not because it’s a great movie but becauseit has unusual merits that make its blandly conventional elements all themore disappointing.

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“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” was written và directed by Dan Gilroy, whoseonly other feature, “Nightcrawler,” offered, in the guise of animpassioned exposé of the ways of TV news, a jumble of absurd plotcontrivances & a lead performance that seems made for a show reelrather than a drama. Gilroy’s new film is, in its general contours, madeof the same elements (including its Los Angeles setting)—but itspremise, and the idiosyncrasy of its title protagonist, are sosignificant & distinctive that they make a numbingly salesman-likemovie inlớn something more.

Roman J. Israel is a lawyer who has spent his entire thirty-six-yearcareer as the employee of a boldly principled, civil-rights-orienteddefense attorney named William Henry Jackson. Roman does the legalwriting and stays entirely behind the scenes; Jackson is the triallawyer. But when Jackson suffers a heart attaông chồng and dies, Roman is leftunemployed. What’s more, Roman, scantly paid throughout his career, hasno savings, and the firm turns out khổng lồ be in the red, leaving hyên with noseverance. He needs to lớn find another job, quickly—& is offered one byJackson’s executor, a rich & famous criminal lawyer named GeorgePierce (Colin Farrell).

Roman seems lớn be on the autism spectrum, though that word is never used in thecourse of the film. Rather, in a brief voice-over, George says thatRoman is “a bit of a savant.” Roman has memorized the many volumes ofthe penal code. He lives his life on a rigid routine. He uses an oldcomputer with a TV-like monitor & has an office full of index cards,Post-its, dusty stacks of paper, & books, all of which serve sầu thecomprehensive sầu memory that he relies on in lieu of law-office software.He listens lớn music of the seventies (on an iPod), he uses a flip phone,his diet is heavy on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches & doughnuts,và his rumpled và loose-fitting clothing is eighties-vintage.(Washington reportedly put on thirty pounds lớn play the role.) He alsohas social difficulties—he has no filter, & he lets loose with frank,insolent, and insulting observations that, at times, cause hlặng serioustrouble.

Above sầu all, though, Roman is a civil-rights lawyer, a lifelong activist(albeit one whose activism has mainly been conducted in secret). Heworked with Jackson to help defendants—who would otherwise have sầu been inthe hands of public defenders—cope with a judicial system that’s stackedagainst the poor and people of color. Meanwhile, throughout the years,Roman has been working in private on building a massive civil-rightscase, a class-action lawsuit lớn challenge the plea-bargain system bywhich defendants, he argues, are effectively denied their right to afair trial. He believes that his case is of historic importance and willkết thúc a widespread practice that results in gross injustices.

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But Roman knows that his case requires, so to lớn speak, a face—a greattrial lawyer—as well as significant resources behind it, và he hopes thatPierce, his powerful và prominent new boss, will take it on.

This theme is Gilroy’s main & major achievement in “Roman J. Israel,Esq.”: he has made a commercial movie with big-name stars và managed toturn endemic injustices và long-standing abuses of government powerinlớn the principal subject of a film that, moreover, is in theOscar stream. Significant parts of the movie show those injustices inaction; several of Roman’s clients (who are presented as guilty ofoffenses far slighter than the charges) are being pressured byprosecutors khổng lồ plead guilty lớn charges that will result in years ofimprisonment, lest they go to lớn trial và confront the risk of vastlylonger sentences.


With his relentless, unfiltered way of speaking, Roman—lacking diplomacyand lacking hypocrisy—speaks truth khổng lồ power in ways that sometimes bringthe wrath of the powerful down against hyên ổn and his clients. Gilroy’sdepiction of the workings of a dysfunctional system—và of atruth-teller who says, in court và lớn its officials, what others mayonly think—is the film’s raison d’être, và it’s all the moredisheartening that, with such an idea và such an impulse, Gilroy didn’ttake the idea, or the character of Roman, lớn the extremes that the movieimplies.

Instead, Gilroy has Roman, first, take judicial matters unwisely intohis own hands, và then, ultimately, embark on an elaborate plot as asecret informant that seems motivated both by vengeance (against acriminal for whom his client took the fall, and worse) & by his ownidiosyncratic—& utterly unexpressed—blover of schemes và fantasies.That’s where the movie comes apart, where its facile và conventional dramatic construction reveals its limits. Romanhas no family and no friends (until he makes a friend, a civil-rightsactivist named Maya, who is played by Carmen Ejogo, and who serves theplot mechanically), và his profound solitude doesn’t speak to lớn hischaracter or his state of mind as much as to lớn the state of Gilroy’sscript, và of screenwriting at large. It’s easier for screenwriters tocreate characters living in a state of extreme isolation, because thatsolitude spares them the trouble of imagining what the character wouldsay lớn friends & family—not merely the effort of imagining thecharacter’s conversations and website of relationships but, especially, thecomplication of knowing (và of divulging khổng lồ viewers) what the characterwould say lớn family & friends about the events happening onscreen. Acharacter who’s voluble, who has a wide web of personal relationshipsand directly expresses emotions và ideas, desires và motives,threatens screenwriters—such a character might, like Marshall McLuhan in “Annie Hall,” pop out và tell filmmakers, “You know nothing of my innerlife.”

The character of Roman J. Israel is a great creation, phối in a greatcontext, but both the character and the context are left woefullyundeveloped in order khổng lồ maintain the movie as a showcase both forWashington’s dramatic virtuosity and for Gilroy’s dramatic contrivances.In effect, Gilroy has made the decision to lớn turn a character-driven movieinkhổng lồ a plot-driven one; he truncates và stifles a fascinating characterin order lớn keep the story moving relentlessly forward on a narrow trackof synthetic action. For that matter, the very casting of Washingtonsuggests Gilroy’s fundamental misdirection: for the character of RomanJ. Israel, not even an actor as great as Washington could suffice; whatGilroy needed was an energumen, someone on the order of Eddie Murphy,someone whose energy threatens to lớn break out of the stultifying script atevery moment.