Austin Film Fest Review: ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. Sees Denzel Sell Out

Dan Gilroy's NIGHTCRAWLER follow-up is an odd mixed bag with a fascinating central performance.

Dan Gilroy makes character studies that are more in line with the New Hollywood cinema that emerged during the '70s than with modern filmic sensibilities - acting showcases that allow the writer/director to craft a character for his performers that then come alive on screen, full of grey morality and meticulous plotting. Nightcrawler found Gilroy maximizing Jake Gyllenhaal's potential, as the committed thespian transformed himself into a sinewy, wild-eyed midnight menace, rushing to accident sites in order to film the grisly footage and then sell it to the highest news bidder. He was Travis Bickle with a camcorder, each step driving him toward an inevitably grim finale. 

For his follow-up to that rather impressive directorial debut, Gilroy literally wrote an entire movie around one of our greatest living actors, and then let him flesh the titular character out as he saw fit. Denzel Washington is Roman J. Israel, Esq. - an overweight, shuffling, afro'd throwback to the radical '60s, who's now stuck in an era that views the acts of penniless legal crusaders as nothing more than antiquated relics from a bygone age. With his oversized glasses and even larger suits, Israel is better behind closed doors than he is in front of a judge, where he's likely to get slapped with a hefty contempt fine when his objections aren't properly heard (at least, "properly" by his estimation). It's a turn that's the textbook definition of "transformative", in a movie that may have needed another editorial pass in order to tighten it up. 

Let's get something out of the way up front - Roman Israel is on the spectrum. However, one of the most intriguing elements of Gilroy's movie is that it never spells out where Roman falls on said spectrum. He has a savant quality in that he's able to quote any section of California legal code seemingly at will, but the movie never treats it like some sort of Rain Man magic trick (and actually judges side characters who exploit Israel's knowledge as a parlor gimmick). His social skills are often combative, as he sometimes lacks the grace to communicate in a nuanced fashion. Yet this often oafish, mumbly immovability never stops him from possessing a unique, chummy charisma. In short, Roman J. Israel treats an individual on the spectrum just as it should: he's indefinable by a single label, just as all people are. If you've met one human being who falls on the spectrum*, you've simply met one human being. 

Being Denzel Washington, none of these character traits are simply laid out via a series of tics, twitches or impediments, but instead through interactions with his environment and others around him. At the outset of Gilroy's picture, Roman is the "man behind the curtain" at his two-partner firm, specializing in civil rights litigation. His more public half is a charismatic former law professor, William "The Bulldog" Jackson, and their office resembles a filing cabinet in flux - flyers for old jazz performances dotting the walls as piles of paperwork line the tops of oak cabinets. Once the firm's face suffers a stroke that places him in a coma, Jackson's family intervenes and informs Roman that the practice is to be dissolved over the coming months, leaving this great and powerful mind without a mouthpiece or paycheck to fund his one room studio (which is similarly cramped and situated right next door to a swank, in-construction condo building), or the sweeping reform brief Israel's been working on for years (and carries with him in a briefcase everywhere he goes). 

Enter George Pierce (Colin Farrell) - the flashy antithesis to Roman, who also counts Jackson as an inspiration. Only, instead of diving into the defense of the poor and under-championed, Pierce became a high-rated defense attorney, setting up multiple branches of his practice and becoming one of the most desired men in Los Angeles. Farrell is usually at his best when playing a complete scamp, but here he's a little too reserved for his own good, almost trying to let the multiple three-piece suits he sports do all the talking for him (but talk they do - hoo boy, does Farrell look good in a tailored garment). George sees potential in Israel and hires him on, but this bull begins breaking plates in the Pierce China Shop, offending a senior partner with his brusque demeanor before attempting to negotiate a plea (against his new employer's wishes) that ends tragically. George's charity backfires, and Farrell gets to put the devil in his character as he lashes out at Roman as a result.  

Between his alien new digs and a botched go at returning to the core teachings of his old practice (by attempting to team up with Camern Ejogo's local volunteer advocate), Roman makes a rash decision regarding information one of his new clients bestows to him, resulting in a betrayal of his beliefs that also brings a newfound financial success, the likes of which he's never experienced before. Suddenly, Israel's able to enjoy the fruits that come with practicing law at a high price, leaving his days of legally supporting those who truly need it most in the dust. It's a relief, and the attorney actually starts to climb within George's firm, buying himself the finer things his previously meager means never allowed. But at what cost? Roman's journey is a soulful one, lost in the deep blacks of LA nights that are captured by Robert Elswit's gorgeous cinematography and accented by a moody, jazzy score from James Newton Howard. 

The pacing of Roman J. Israel, Esq. is janky, and the plotting is certainly odd (for such a great writer, Gilroy continues to struggle with overall structure). The final thirty minutes actually shift gears into a full-blown thriller, which comes out of nowhere and is rather jarring, despite the admittedly riveting storytelling on display. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to watch a major studio invest in a motion picture that's clearly a throwback to the ethically hazy character studies of the '70s. Denzel's roving block of once steadfast principles may sometimes be grating to exist around, but that's also what makes him so fascinating. We're watching as one of an era's last great crusaders sells his spirit for momentary pleasures, thus leading to absolute damnation. America is no longer a country for the selfless, and with Roman J. Israel, Esq. Dan Gilroy and Denzel Washington deliver an avatar for the sellout.

*At TIFF, Denzel reportedly labeled Roman as an individual who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome (an antiquated label unto itself).