Through the first act of Dan Gilroy’s latest, I thought I was watching a socially conscious legal drama about the prison industrial complex, and I was into it. Then the second act got underway, and I thought I was watching a Faustian satire — and I was more than on board. Halfway through the third act, I realized I was watching no fewer than three different movies, none of which had a satisfactory ending. While I’m a fan of the bleak worldview and nihilistic sardonicism that Gilroy displayed with 2016’s Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel, Esq. feels like a script in need of a serious polish.
While Denzel Washington is as great as ever, the film’s lack of a cohesive narrative direction cripples his best efforts. By refusing to commit to a specific point, Gilroy dances around a number of intriguing and important ideas without adequately exploring any of them. The resultant film will undeniably be polarizing, and while it’s far from being a bad movie, I found myself obsessively considering how great it could have been. That’s never a good sign.
Washington’s Israel is an idealistic activist attorney, a throwback to the Black Power era of the civil rights movement with an admirable dedication to his cause and a willful ignorance of the changing world around him. A savant with an eidetic memory for legal precedent, Israel’s world is upended when the death of his law firm’s public face leaves him without the crucial protection and benefaction he’d been too busy to notice he was receiving. Tossed unceremoniously out on his ear, Israel’s personality quirks leave him poorly suited to re-entering the job market, and his crusading sensibilities put him at odds even with those who share his social goals.
What happens next is relatively predictable — or at least it would be if Gilroy had decided what story he wanted to tell. Israel just wants to work on a massive class-action suit that could dismantle the fatally fractured justice system that he sees disenfranchising minorities and the poor, but the financial pressures of his world are mounting. In steps Colin Farrell as entitled sleaze personified, and Israel’s fortunes take a turn for the better — or do they? Moral compromise and monetary success seem inextricably linked in Gilroy’s sensibilities, and despite his explanation of the title “esquire” as “somewhere above gentleman and below knight,” Roman Israel has to pay the rent like the rest of us, principles notwithstanding.
Had I walked out of the theater without having seen the last half hour of this film, I would have assumed that Roman J. Israel, Esq. was a fantastic piece of work — but the third act leads to one of the most frustrating cop-outs of an ending that I’ve witnessed in quite some time. It’s not so much that Gilroy pulls his punches as that he lands the wrong ones, leaving his protagonist shortchanged at the expense of ancillary characters who haven’t earned their Pyrrhic victory. There are moments of the brilliant incisiveness that Gilroy is capable of interspersed throughout the film, but its ham-fisted conclusion leaves Roman J. Israel an unfortunate example of potential unfulfilled, just like its eponymous protagonist. Rated PG-13 for language and some violence. Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.