Writer-director Dan Gilroy began making waves in Hollywood following his 2014 directorial debut “Nightcrawler,” a dark, thought-provoking film that was met with significant critical and popular acclaim. Naturally, anticipation built up surrounding the release of Gilroy’s second project, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” a film about an awkward, brash and idealistic civil rights defense attorney struggling to make a difference in a society dominated by corporate interests.
Denzel Washington (“Fences”) plays the eponymous Roman J. Israel in a performance that serves as a central strength of the film. Roman is, above all else, out of place. The struggle most central to the character is his inability to fit into a certain time, place or group of people. Washington portrays this inability wonderfully, capturing the grandiose oddities of Roman’s personality all the way down to his microscopic idiosyncrasies.
Set in the modern day, Roman arrives at work every day in the same baggy suits he’s owned since the ’70s. In one particularly poignant scene, Roman is invited to speak to a group of young activists and is lampooned as a sexist after asking why men are not acting chivalrously when they are sitting while women are standing in the back. This causes one of the women to remind him: “This isn’t 40 years ago, asshole.” The film communicates Roman’s anachronism well with a soundtrack that ranges from ’70s funk to Childish Gambino, mixing the old and the new in a way that parallels the film’s main character.
Unfortunately, it’s also Washington’s performance as the awkward, idiosyncratic attorney that serves as one of the film’s greatest hindrances by completely outshining every other member of the cast. The film’s supporting roles are practically nonexistent; whatever traits the other characters in the film possess seem to be present only to act as a foil to Roman. As a result, the film feels like a one-man show that, for all the talent Washington brings to the table, can’t seem to create a world that’s interesting and genuine enough to hold the attention of audiences.
If this weren’t enough to cause audiences to lose interest, the film suffers from dreadful pacing that will test even patient moviegoers. The first 45 minutes of the film are more or less insubstantial, giving audiences a look at Roman going about his day to day life. Once audiences have endured a patience-testing first act, they’re rewarded with a film that is otherwise entertaining. However, entertaining and substantial are not the same thing.
A film like “Roman J. Israel Esq.” inherently carries with it a goal of some kind of greater social commentary; Roman’s struggle to help those disenfranchised by the criminal justice system brings forth difficult questions about activism and civil rights in a society that treats prisoners and criminals like commodities. However, the film skirts around directing these questions head-on and instead chooses to fall back on the same few heavy-handed talking points about the American legal system. By the end of the film it’s as if it’s stopped trying to answer these questions at all, opting instead to wax poetic on a tangent of disillusionment and atonement that feels decidedly irrelevant from the social issues that the film sets up to be its cornerstone.
In the end, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is just as conflicted and awkward as its main character. It’s a film that appears to have had all the makings of an extremely compelling experience — from the talent to the content to the direction — but lacked the focus to be anything more than a forgettable experience.