When writer/director Dan Gilroy isn’t focused on blockbuster fare (Kong: Skull Island), he likes to tackle tougher stories, like his highly acclaimed Nightcrawler. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is definitely more in the Nightcrawler arena of social commentary and challenging characters. There is something both wonderful and depressing about the film. It is loaded both with a sense of possibility and a crushing weight of injustice and history. And like Molly’s Game, taking it at a surface level misses the intent.
This is also not your typical Denzel Washington (Fences, Equalizer) movie or part. He is a man out of sync with time, and at odds with himself and the world, in a way that feels broken. We get that from everything Israel does, from his clothes, to his music, to his electronics. Making Israel feel like a time traveler in our world is a wonderful conceit to bring home the movie’s points. Despite being either a savant and/or on the Asperger’s scale, he isn’t an incapable character. Roman is simply so wrapped in his own world and needs, and has been so insulated or trapped over decades, that his understanding of the politics and culture of “now” doesn’t seem to apply anymore. We understand and expect his way of thinking to be right…but are as frustrated as he is when it keeps breaking on the shoals of reality.
Though across a fairly big scope, the movie is very tightly focused on Israel and two other characters. Carmen Ejogo (It Comes at Night) and Colin Farrell (The Beguiled) are Israel’s opportunity to reach across the gulf of time to replant the original seeds of purpose. Pompous as that sounds, the intent of this film really feels more about the loss of the roots of activism, the drift from pure intentions with clear goals, into something fractured and diminished in reach.
It isn’t an easy story, but it is subtle and timely. Fighting is exhausting. Anyone who has been pushing back against the shift in this country (and the world) for the last year has been reminded of that. It is tempting to give up, in fact if you’ve done it long enough, you feel entitled to give up. But you cannot. The fight for justice and fairness never ends. It becomes a literal piece of baggage that must be handed off from one person to another, one generation to another. Even if the face of constant defeat, you have to fight on so that, at some point, someone will succeed. And then you move on to the next fight. Freedom must constantly be defended. In fact, this movie would make an intriguing companion piece to 13th, Selma, or even I Am Not Your Negro, for an interesting evening or three.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. exposes some realities that you may not really want to hear or may not even agree with. It isn’t an easy story to watch, but it is acted well and delivered with conviction. It’s message reveals itself over the length of the movie. It is a message that, at least for me, ended with a real sense of possibility and energy. And that is a welcome boost as we turn the corner into 2018 and, among other things, come up to the second Women’s March in a couple weeks.