Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Gilroy; 2017)

The film Roman J. Israel, Esq. opens with the titular character (Denzel Washington) typing up a court transcript in which he is making himself both the prosecutor and the defendant, and apparently also the attorneys, the judge, the jury, and everyone else involved with his imaginary case.  It’s an opening that does grab your attention.  Who is Roman J. Israel?  What did he do that would make him feel he needs to be put on trial?  What sort of person would go to all the trouble of actually typing out an entire false trial in judgment of himself?  This fantasy trial transcript never goes past the point of declaring the plaintiff and defendant at any point in the film, however, and so this transcript becomes an allegory for the entire film.  It’s an interesting premise that is ruined by the fact that it never explores any of its ideas past the introductory concept and even then it doesn’t seem to understand much about people, law, nor storytelling.

First and foremost of the things to talk about in this film is the central character Roman J. Israel, Esq. himself.  After the short introduction is finished, we flashback a short period in time to find that Roman starts the movie a law savant working in a very small criminal defense law firm in which he does all the behind the scenes work while his partner appears in court and performs all the other duties which involve contact and conversation with people.  The savant angle of Roman’s character is the focal point of the film as we a watch person who has entire volumes of legal decisions and case law memorized down to specific subsection numbers but understands next to nothing of the arts of politics and diplomacy which are also so essential in the legal profession.  Yet, we never learn what makes him this way.  Is it a form of high functioning autism?  Is it a form of OCD?  A combination of factors?  Is it just the way he was raised?  We never learn any of these answers and they could very well have a strong influence on how the audience perceives him and his actions in the film.


It should also affect Washington’s portrayal of the role.  You can tell that this film is more than just a paycheck in the passion he brings to the role.  This is Denzel at his most magnetic and intense.  You can tell that he loves this character, and wants to do everything he can to make us love and understand him, as well.  This is a case, though, of the devil being in the details.  If he’s playing an autistic savant, then there are far too many cases of suave, smooth Denzel making its way to the forefront.  If he’s playing OCD, we never see any of the habits or tics which would define such a person.  Even in the things we know for sure about the character he seems to miss details, making for a character we really want to like and appreciate, but can’t due to a lack of understanding who he is and his motivations from inconsistencies.

These inconsistencies are not solely the fault of Washington, though, the script and direction from Dan Gilroy not only do him no favors but are actually the real source of the majority of this film’s woes.  It’s a script that doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be.  It’s sort of a character piece, sort of a legal drama, sort of a crime drama, sort of an activist statement, but it never manages to commit to any one plot nor theme so we’re ultimately left with a film full of half-realized plots and thoughts.  These problems extend into every element of the film, from Roman himself to every supporting character and subplot.  Which is too bad, because like Denzel you can tell that Gilroy is passionate about this subject matter, but his passion overrode his common sense and objectivity it seems as he wasn’t able to recognize his film for the inconsistent mess it is.


Putting the plot and characters aside, though, the technical elements of Roman J. Israel, Esq. are well handled.  The camerawork adds a lot to the tone of the film, showing us Los Angeles through the eyes of Roman himself and how his view of the city and himself change as he makes his own major life changes throughout the film.  The art direction and costumes also add an impressive amount to the atmosphere with the choices of costume in particular almost doing more to let us understand these characters than the writing and the acting do (and, the film seems to know this on some level with the amount of time spent commenting on what Roman is wearing).  It’s a movie that knows when to be pretty and when to be ugly, and obviously loves Los Angeles for its flaws just as much as its glory.

The film’s fatal flaw, though, even worse than its handling of its characters and plot is its handling of its themes.  It’s a movie that seems to want to be an even-handed film showing that people have layers and that an evil act does not make an evil person and vice versa or perhaps that being successful does not make one unethical or perhaps its meant to be a simpler don’t judge a book by its cover style of message.  Due to the fact that its characterizations are so messy, though, I don’t know.  Compare Roman J. Esquire to a film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or Lady Bird (review forthcoming) and you will the difference between characters and story which are complex and realistic and those which are merely inconsistent and not well thought out.


Final verdict:  Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a mess of a passion project.  It’s a movie that I really want to like because you can tell that the people behind it really believed in what they were doing.  That very belief, however, seemed to blind them to the reality which is that this movie was trying to do so much that it couldn’t accomplish much of it effectively.  As a visual testament to the city of Los Angeles and to the maxim of clothes making the man the movie hits, but aside from that, it spins its wheels never letting us really understand who these people are nor what they are trying to say.

The Accountant (O’Connor; 2016)

Ben Affleck is Christian Wolff, an autistic accountant whom we very quickly learn is involved with many, many very dangerous criminals.  His story is told in great detail in The Accountant, and it is a very twisty, turny one that affects the lives of a great many people.  It stretches credibility to its breaking point, but never quite causes it to snap, and for that writer Bill Dubuque and director Gavin O’Connor deserve scads of credit.

The first thing that must be talked about regarding this film is the character of Christian Wolff himself.  The Accountant takes the “idiot-savant” myth of autism and somewhat exaggerates it, and somewhat turns it on its head.  It gets a lot of the details of autism very right, the fact that people suffering from autism need routine, that bright lights and loud noises can cause autism sufferers physical pain, that they see patterns everywhere.  We learn very early in the film that Wolff comes from a military family, and that his father insists he deal with his autism by confronting it head on, toughening up and “being a man” about his condition because the world is not going to be kind to him.  So we see Wolff training with experts in all types of combat and subjecting himself to a daily regimen of extreme bright light and sound to get himself to a place where he can handle the real world.  This combined with his Rain Man type genius turns him into a sort of autistic super spy.  As a premise, it’s implausible, but it does conform to its own form of internal logic, and that is what’s really most important in film, and all story telling, for that matter.


Really great aim is one of the features of autism that no one ever talks about.

The story of The Accountant also stretches plausibility as far as it can go with its many branching story arcs that rely on coincidence and on the actions of Wolff, but again, it’s handled well enough that it never goes past the point of outright absurdity.  Everything we see on screen is explained at some point and brought back around to some event we were introduced to earlier.  One story line in particular is handled poorly due to the fact that we are told about it through voice over and flashback rather than seeing the action first hand at a rather climactic point in the film, but as extreme and madcap as the situations get in The Accountant, it never crosses the line where our immersion is broken.  It toes it, though, it toes it for its entire running length.

The performances are well handled across the board:  Ben Affleck plays autistic very convincingly, never going “full retard” (I couldn’t resist), Anna Kendrick is a charming mirror image love interest to his character, and J.K. Simmons and John Lithgow in their respective roles give the fantastic performances we’ve just come to take for granted from them.  It’s also good to see a couple of mostly television actors, Jon Bernthal of Walking Dead fame and Cynthia Addai-Robinson from Arrow and Spartacus, get some time on the big screen and use that time at least adequately if never stunningly.


This is the look you get when The Punisher comes to pay you a visit.

The Accountant is absolutely a lot of fun.  Is it even remotely feasible?  No, but really, very few action films are and if you have an interesting premise like a man who uses a condition like autism to turn himself into a form of superhero, why the heck not take it to its extreme?  This is a film where you have to be able to just enjoy the ride, because there is nothing to learn here, nothing of import to ponder, just a well crafted action thriller that aims high and never misses by going even more over the top than it knowingly wants to.

Rating:  7.0 out of 10