There are good things in Roman J. Israel, Esq, quite a few good things, not least of which is the lead performance from a superb Denzel Washington. It's just a shame that the film suffers from a real lack of clarity. Does it want to be a character study, or a magnifying glass hovering over some of the biggest flaws in the American justice system, or a look at the slippery slope you can end up on when you make a wrong moral choice even just the one time?
Denzel is the titular character. He's a man who knows the legal system inside out, he has almost total recall of court statistics and numbers, and he's a good man to have on your side if you're ever in trouble. He doesn't appear in court, however, because he does the work behind the scenes while his partner makes the court appearances. That's an ideal situation until his partner has a heart attack, and when Roman turns up to court it doesn't take long to see why he's normally hidden away behind the scenes. He has no filter, which can lead to trouble for himself, and perhaps even his clients.
Trials are expensive. The American system is designed in a way to minimise people actually going to trial. So lawyers will offer plea bargains. Go to trial and risk a sentence of 25-30 years if found guilty, plead without going to trial and we'll give you 5, you can get out in 3 with good behaviour. That kind of thing. Which means, on a lot of occasions, people are too scared to even take a gamble on their RIGHT to a trial, even if they may actually be innocent of the crime.And that's what writer-director Dan Gilroy seems to want to look at here. Then he wanders over to a different area. Then back to the right to trial idea. And then somewhere else. He looks at it, and goes away and comes back to look at it some more, but not as pointedly. It leaves viewers feeling exactly how my wife feels when she sees me hovering around a nice new movie boxset I want to buy, going to other parts of the store before going back to it, making my pleading face until she caves in and says I can buy it. The frustrating thing is that Gilroy doesn't need our permission to commit to his idea, he just thinks that he does. Or he doesn't think he can make a whole movie from it, so he mixes in other ideas that just don't feel as if they belong there.
The great shame is that this confusion, this muddying of the waters, will lead to a lot of people missing one of the better Washington performances in recent years. Despite some of his familiar tics appearing here and there, this is far removed from the usual confident and cocky turns Washington has given us over the past couple of decades. There's also two fantastic supporting performances from Colin Farrell, playing someone who seems like an enemy to Roman but is actually a slick lawyer looking for a chance to improve things somewhat while still working well within the system, and Carmen Ejogo, a young woman who is inspired by Roman, as he is in turn further inspired by her.
In terms of actual dialogue, the script works well. Characters are fleshed out, exchanges are sharp and smart, and interesting ideas are drip fed throughout the main narrative. Again, it's just the meandering lack of focus and structure that undoes a lot of the good work. Viewers don't really get a feel for the time and place, the events take place over three weeks and yet it all feels as if it stretches out for much more than that, and instead of provoking more thought the jumble of elements simply results in a bit of a disinterested shrug.
But those performances make it worth your time. They are THAT good. You also get a very good soundtrack, some cracking songs interspersed by a decent score from James Newton Howard, and at least things move along quickly enough that the 2-hour runtime feels slightly brisker than it otherwise might.
Americans can buy it here.