TIFF17: Roman J Israel, Esq
To be completely fair to Dan Gilroy, it is very hard for films to dislodge expectations and pre-conceived notions about a film/maker, to win over a skeptical audience member, or to reach someone who just was not in the appropriate frame of mind with just one viewing. It’s safe to say, that I was all of the above vis à vis his latest, Roman J. Israel, Esq. It’s entirely possible that someone who is more of a blank slate can pick up what Gilroy is putting down with this movie and I’m going to make that case, because I’m feeling sleepy and generous.
Denzel Washington digs into his role as the eponymous . . . I’ll go ahead and say hero, sure, Roman J. Israel, esq. There are no anti-heroes here, not even Colin Farrell, despite playing the kind of big time lawyer who you would favor for the double cross or the dirty deal. Nope, no anti-heroes here. Just one very sheltered legal eagle with a sharp mind and absolutely zero people skills and plenty of weird little tics. It’s a bizarro (i.e. good guy) version of Gyllenhaal’s weirdo in Nightcrawler. The good guy version of an intense guy with a idea just off of center. To Gilroy’s credit, the words “Aspberger’s” and “spectrum” never come up (but it sure felt like they were gunning for it — ok, that was not generous, back to the best case scenario). There’s no questioning Israel’s or the film’s sincerity. And to be honest, it’s heart is broadly in a good place. Washington’s character is someone who has dedicated his life to social justice. A major subplot of the film is updating Israel’s idea of what the civil rights movement is currently up to, once the new generation figures out how to handle his, er, quirks and using the legal system to create a better world.
In a nutshell, then, Roman J. Israel, Esq is about a well-meaning person thrust into a series of situations he isn’t ready for when the person keeping him away from the world dies and Roman’s universe kind of collapses, makes one (very very large) mistake, gets punished for it and is mature enough to learn from the punishment and right the ship before he loses even more of his soul. It’s not fair or totally worth it for me to dig into the nature of his mistake (he’s a defense attorney, you can probably guess, broad strokes from just that) and cineastes are probably gonna be told to see this film, so hey, I won’t spoil the guts of the film. Denzel is good, Farrell is good, the arc of the universe bends towards justice, but not without sacrifice, so there’s stakes. Lights come up, everybody claps. The end.
Ok, so much for the generous version. If that is that idea you want to have in your head for this film, go with God and we’ll talk later. Some of the spoilers I assiduously avoided up here? Much will be revealed down below! Beware.
The bad guy/”you think too much about movies” version runs like this: the film’s premise strains my credulity. I do know people who resist and even refuse the world of smartphones, like Israel. It is just possible to imagine someone who still uses a CRT (I work for a lot of not-for-profits, y’all). It’s even possible to conceive of someone doing all of their recordkeeping by hand, even now. But what really just doesn’t track is that Roman J. Israel, Esq is like totally unaware of everything related to civil rights that has happened since, I don’t know, we elected a black President. There’s no mention of Trayvon Martin, no Tamir Rice, not even a whisper of Mike Brown or Ferguson, or Eric Garner. It’s like Israel woke from a cryo-chamber or steps through a time warp on his way to work everyday and everything he knows about the world stopped in 1972 or so. A civil rights inclined lawyer who seems utterly unaware of the existence of large scale protests agitating for racial justice? Come, the fuck, on. Ferguson was 2014. I know movies take a long time to make, but sheeeeit.
If you don’t buy into the totality of Israel’s isolation from like everything modern, the hour that Gilroy uses to build up Israel as a model of rectitude who has everything taken from him because he is out of touch and out of date and is rejected on all sides feels absurdly forced and inauthentic. If he didn’t have any anti-social tendencies, it would be even less believable. And when we finally, finally get to Israel’s breaking point, where he chucks it all in, what is the straw that broke the camel’s back? He gets mugged. He gets accosted and assaulted for his 2nd generation iPod (permanently attached to Sony Walkman, I mean the cassette tapes, style headphones straight out of Good Will). He does sustain a head injury that doesn’t get treated (Not much time is spent connecting the head trauma to the bad life choice, but if this were an episode of House? He’d be all over it).
But the writer and director of Nightcrawler, you know, the movie where the TV producer contaminates a murder scene to get a scoop and conspires to get his inconvenient helper killed ON TV, what does he do to Roman J Israel, esq? Sends him out into the desert with all his stuff when his crime is discovered and then . . . have an epiphany over the phone, come right back and turn himself into the police for his wrongdoing. And instead of Roman’s legacy being completely tainted, the Colin Farrell decides to take up the massive legal brief that Israel has spent his entire life assembling on his own damn time and files it to begin the process of making the world a better place. Raise your hand if you thought that’s what Gilroy would be up to after Nightcrawler? LIAR!
There is a good, complex morality tale to be told about the compromises necessary to make a living in a world where everything is stacked against justice in the day to day grind of the court system (which Gilroy is absolutely right to focus on that). *Sigh* This is not that movie.