Three years ago, Dan Gilroy made his directorial debut with the critically-acclaimed film “Nightcrawler” in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s character roams the streets of Los Angeles filming grisly crime scenes and selling the footage to news stations.
Gilroy showed audiences a side of Gyllenhaal that had never been seen before, and he does the same with Denzel Washington in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”
Washington stars as the film’s titular character, an autistic savant attorney that can cite the provisions of the California Criminal and Civil Code by memory.
At first, it’s hard to tell what time period the film is set in due to Israel’s three-piece suits, foam headphones and framed pictures of Angela Davis adorning the walls of his dingy apartment. It only becomes clear that the film is taking place in the present when another attorney asks Israel what legal software program he uses. Israel is truly a relic of the ’70s, as displayed by his insistence upon using physical law books instead of a computer.
Despite possessing savant abilities for memorization and recollection of events, Israel’s lack of interpersonal skills causes him to avoid courtrooms and people in general. Instead, he works behind the scenes in a two-person law firm, writing briefs and pleadings while his partner, who is the face of the firm, takes credit for his work.
When his partner suddenly has a heart attack, Israel is forced to search for work as he cannot run the firm by himself, especially when he seems incapable of not talking back to judges and finding himself in contempt.
Israel initially tries to find employment at an equal-rights nonprofit organization run by a woman named Maya (Carmen Ejogo of “Selma”). The interview does not go well, but Maya is so impressed by Israel’s past contributions as an inner-city civil rights activist that she remains in contact with him.
Eventually, Israel is hired by slick criminal defense attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell) who represents the exact opposite of Israel’s ideals. While Pierce is motivated by monetary success, Roman seeks to change the court system’s tendency to punish minor offenses with maximum sentences.
If it’s not already clear enough that Israel tries to be a lawyer with dignity, the way he describes the title of esquire — “slightly above gentleman but below knight” — makes it blatantly apparent.
In a lapse of conscious, Israel abandons the principles that have guided his life and makes a decision that ultimately comes back to haunt him.
Similar to how Gilroy showed the gritty underbelly of LA in “Nightcrawler,” “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” also manages to depict the beauty of areas in Los Angeles that are often perceived as seedy. While downtown LA and Los Angeles City Hall are frequently avoided due to rampant crime and roaming homeless, the film makes the night scenes of downtown Los Angeles both alluring and menacing at the same time.
While Washington succeeds in convincing audiences that Israel has spent decades putting others before himself, the plot is just too improbable to believe.
The story quickly branches out into several different subplots, none of which are actually followed through by the conclusion of the film. Right when a plotline starts to develop, a new story idea gets introduced. It becomes increasingly frustrating to watch as the film progresses and leaves viewers wondering why Gilroy didn’t commit to one storyline.
Regardless of Gilroy’s overly ambitious plot, Denzel Washington’s performance is one not to be missed. Washington crafts an indelible character that is so uncharacteristic of him that it’s a bit jarring at first.
Fans of Washington will enjoy seeing him in a role unlike any other he has done before, but those who expect a screenplay that is comparable in caliber to “Nightcrawler” will be sorely disappointed.