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Roman J. Israel, Esq., Denzel Washington's new movie, has the attention span of a squirrel

It’s almost good — in that way that makes it all the more disappointing that it doesn’t really work.

Denzel Washington in 1970’s era hair and glasses.
Denzel Washington plays the title role in Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Sony Pictures
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

What’s interesting about Roman J. Israel, Esq., the new Denzel Washington vehicle from Nightcrawler writer/director Dan Gilroy, is that what doesn’t work about it is exactly what did work about Gilroy’s earlier film, which was one of my favorites of 2014.

In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom, is a deeply amoral monster person who trolls the backstreets of Los Angeles, looking to film raw footage that he can sell to local TV stations. It’s often footage of people in their lowest moments, injured or panicked or on the run, and he captures it dispassionately, then turns it into news that essentially nobody benefits from knowing. It’s salacious stuff, sold to humanity’s lowest common denominator.

The film’s structure, such as it is, creates a long series of experiments where you bear witness as the world surrounding Lou encounters him, then bends to accommodate his amorality. The “arc” of the movie doesn’t involve Lou learning anything, really. It’s about the world at large figuring out how to work him into its larger ecosystem, a dark tale of just how easy it is for people to come to accept amorality by swallowing it whole.

The result is a bunch of sequences that show Lou pushing the limits more and more, with the world pushing back just a little but eventually giving in. In some ways, Nightcrawler feels like one of the most prophetic movies of the decade, as if it could see where we were headed long before we ever arrived.

Roman J. Israel, Esq., in contrast, is almost the exact opposite of that movie. It’s about what happens when the world encounters a deeply moral person, and how it reacts in kind. But despite that compelling premise, the film doesn’t really work.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the most frustrating kind of movie there is: one that almost succeeds, and is more disappointing because it doesn’t

The movie I kept waiting for Roman J. Israel to become wasn’t Nightcrawler, but rather the 2007 film Michael Clayton, written and directed by Dan Gilroy’s brother, Tony Gilroy. Michael Clayton was about a morally complicated lawyer’s awakening, his realization that corporate interests had used him as a tool to further crush the poor and suffering, and every time I watch it, I like it a little bit more. (I’ve gone from “That was solid,” on first viewing, to “Is this movie a masterpiece?” on my fifth or sixth. Check in with me again in another 10 years.)

The problem with Roman J. Israel is that the title character had his moral awakening years and years ago. Gilroy lards him up with character traits: He’s a former civil rights activist turned low-paid lawyer, with a passion for defending those the judicial system saddles with unfair verdicts and/or the whole plea bargain system. He’s a socially awkward shut-in who barely interacts with anybody, and he has such a rigid moral code that it doesn’t allow for flexibility in anyone, much less himself. He’s the indispensable right hand of a low-level but beloved criminal defense attorney.

All of these characterizations (and more) are mostly carried off by Washington, but they jostle uneasily against each other throughout the film, which leads to a sense that every new scene marks the beginning of another movie entirely.

Gilroy ties himself in knots to deliver Washington from the small firm he’s worked at for his entire career to a much more successful, much shadier one run by George Pierce, whom Colin Farrell plays as a kind of Jay Gatsby analogue — searching for the moral compass he misplaced somewhere along his path to success. And the idea of Roman and George working together should, in and of itself, provide a decent foundation for the story. Will Roman resist the temptations of success to stay on the tried and true? Or will he ultimately crumble?

Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Roman and George (Colin Farrell) discuss THE LAW (in all caps).
Sony Pictures

The inverse-Nightcrawler setup should work as well. Everybody at George’s firm should know that what they’re doing is often deeply troubling, so that having their own moral failings cast into relief by Roman’s dogged righteousness can create a neat little movie about the divide between what’s legal and what’s moral. And Washington — who clearly relishes sinking his teeth into such an uncharacteristic role for him, making the most of every tic and flourish he can cram into his performance — could have been the perfect moral rock amid the storm.

There are some moments when this storyline does emerge, like when Roman chastises a couple of higher-ups at the firm for talking crudely about women. But for the most part, Gilroy abandons this idea and tries to examine what happens when Roman does something capital-W Wrong, then has to find a way to reconcile that action with the self he’s cultivated over the years. It’s never as effective as, say, Roman and George driving around Los Angeles at night and talking about the purpose of the law.

Practically speaking, Roman J. Israel, Esq. feels like an extended TV pilot that ultimately attempts to cram the entirety of the rest of the series into its last 45 minutes. (Honestly, in many of its particulars, it reminded me of the ABC series The Good Doctor, just with one of the biggest movie stars on Earth in the lead role.) The movie is cluttered with so many stray threads and story elements that it’s almost impossible for the viewer to focus on any main idea or thought — and when it strives for a deeply moving climax, it badly misses the mark because it’s elided so many of the steps along the way. (Gilroy reportedly cut 12 minutes from the finished film between its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and its release, and it shows.)

However, with all that said, I’d almost recommend seeing Roman J. Israel regardless, especially if you’re a student of movies that almost work, then become all the more disappointing because they don’t. There are some beautiful shots throughout, particularly when cinematographer Robert Elswit films construction going on near Roman’s downtown Los Angeles apartment as though gentrification is literal Hell, with fiery sparks flying everywhere, lighting up the dark. And most of the performances are good, even if they feel uncentered.

Roman J. Israel’s main problem is that it can never focus for long enough on its core. If Nightcrawler worked because it was relentless, and because it let every new sequence in which Lou Bloom convinced the rest of the world to see things his way unfold over an extended period of time, Roman J. Israel falls short because it keeps getting distracted by shiny new baubles. It has something to say, but it can never calm down long enough to finish its current thought out before moving on to the next one.

Roman J. Israel, Esq., opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 17, before expanding nationwide on Wednesday, November 22.

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