Roman J. Israel Esq. (Denzel Washington) is the type of lawyer that clings to the most vestigial notions of virtue and morality. His code of ethics and erratic temperament are ill fit for the dystopia that is contemporary Los Angeles. He’s not concerned with appearances: his suit jacket is oversized, his Afro inelegant, and he frequently dons a pair of unbecoming headphones that one gathers once accompanied a first-edition 1979 Walkman. When questioned about what the “Esquire” means in his name, he refers to its more archaic alternative definition that suggests knighthood; it’s a point of distinction that validates his pro-bono work. He’s not necessarily naïve, but as Roman acknowledges midway through Dan Gilroy’s sophomore film, his “lack of success is self-imposed”. Roman’s commitment to the betterment of humanity has come at the price of giving up all the indulgences that life offers.
When Roman’s hole-in-the-wall practice is absorbed by a larger firm, he’s offered and accepts a new position. Headed by George (Colin Farrell), we anticipate a conflict between capitalist ideals and humanist philanthropy, as Roman challenges George’s more practical concerns. But a series of events alters Roman’s worldview: one of his clients is murdered, he’s subject to disbarment after failing to advise one of his clients of a plea deal, he then becomes the object of ridicule among his friend Maya’s (Carmen Ejogo) contemporaries (a group of social activists), and to top it all off, he’s violently mugged. Roman’s a guy who could really use a break. And so when he violates attorney-client privilege by using information that leads to the apprehension of a fugitive, which in itself offers a handsome cash reward, you sense a cosmic realignment of Roman’s bad fortune: he chows down on maple-bacon donuts along the oceanfront, updates his wardrobe with tailored suits and new loafers, and even moves out of his cruddy hovel into a new development. But as it were, the worse your past, the worse your future, and Roman’s reckoning is as swift as his ascent.
Much like Gilroy’s previous film, Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel Esq. is a rich text on the nature of success and the moral acrobatics one must embrace in order to achieve a measure of balance. What makes the two films, and specifically, the two lead performances and characters of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom and Denzel Washington’s Roman J. Israel so compelling is gauging the wherewithal of their moral codes. One gathers that Nightcrawler’s Louis Bloom is someone already at the end of their rope and prepared to hang, as he hustles from one gig to the next. But with Roman J. Israel, we see his principles firmly intact and in practice before he becomes compromised. Decades of fighting have made him weary, and when the opportunity for relief presents itself, he does so with the kind of anxiety and doubt that would afflict any reasonably functioning human being.
Roman J. Israel Esq. can suffer for its lack of formal depth. While Nightcrawler found new angles in its observations of Los Angeles deviancy and crime as seen through the lens of cinematographer Robert Elswitt’s vibrant eye, Roman J. Israel Esq. is mostly content in surveying Denzel Washington’s massive performance. His presence is indomitable, even if he’s playing his meekest role in recent memory. But there’s little to Gilroy’s film that sticks out on the purely visceral and visual terms that sears into your cognizance the way Nightcrawler did. Which in itself is fine, as Roman J. Israel Esq., despite its thematic similarities to Gilroy’s previous film, is a different beast of a film. It’s shaggier and less concerned with projecting a bold, contemplative social message on the degeneracy of our institutions. It careens through its Los Angeles milieu with Washington’s performance as its vehicle. Its active disinterest in mechanizing its plot points reminded me of one of the great L.A. movies, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Gilroy’s film doesn’t reach those heights, but the ambition is there. And a little ambition and one of the few capital M, capital S Movie Stars of the world giving an unusual and eccentric performance counts for something.