Published nearly 200 years ago, Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” tells of a man who falls asleep during the colonial era and wakes up two decades later, after the American Revolution, to find himself living in a different nation. This notion of a long sleep and a rude awakening is tailor-made for social satire—think of Chance the gardener, the graying simpleton played by Peter Sellers in Being There (1979), who has spent his entire life cloistered in a rich man’s home but, upon the man’s death, is turned out onto the mean streets of Washington, D.C., and mistakenly adopted by Beltway types as a political savant. Now Dan Gilroy, writer-director of the creepy news satire Nightcrawler, brings us Roman J. Israel, Esq., whose title character, a self-styled “revolutionary” criminal defense attorney, has been holed up for decades in the Manhattan office of a two-man law firm. The awkward Roman writes brilliant defense briefs that his partner, William, delivers in court, but then William suffers a heart attack, his family shuts down the struggling firm, and Roman is ejected into the real world to fend for himself.
As an actor, Denzel Washington invests himself in his characters’ foibles—the alcoholic denial of the airline pilot in Flight, the generational rage of the Pittsburgh patriarch in Fences—and for him, Roman’s hothouse idealism is a gold mine. Wearing blocky glasses and a goofy Afro, Roman listens to jazz on headphones and returns home every night to a claustrophobic apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood, where he tends to his walls of LPs and phones in noise complaints, citing the applicable statute by number, on the construction crew carrying on next door. Invited to address a community meeting on the topic of police stops, Roman asks “the brothers” in the audience to give up their seats for “the sisters” who are standing and is baffled when the sisters attack him as “gendered,” “sexist,” and “patronizing.” At the courthouse, Roman flirts with another sister working security by asking her where to find “the white people’s court.” (“Black ass,” she mutters once he’s out of earshot.) With his framed pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin, Roman is a relic from another era.
Roman’s antagonist, played with quiet resolve by Colin Farrell, is George Pierce, a former student of William’s who now runs a blue-chip criminal defense firm with a staff of 60, and whose referrals of weak cases to the smaller firm were the only thing keeping it alive. Formidably smooth and assertive, clad in a perfectly tailored suit that makes Roman’s ill-fitting ensemble look even more bumptious, George was once inspired by William’s passion for justice but has long since succumbed to the lure of money. He recognizes Roman’s encyclopedic case knowledge as a valuable asset and, in an act of charity that masks his avarice, hires the older man at his current pay of $500 a week, privately telling an assistant that they can bill Roman’s services for $500 an hour. If Roman is a throwback to the Black Power movement, George is the man of the moment, master of a modern legal system in which the cost of going to trial figures more heavily than any sense of justice.
Therein lies the edge of this increasingly serious film. Roman may be emerging from a countercultural cocoon, but he’s been focused on one of the most pressing criminal justice problems of our time—prosecutorial abuse of plea bargaining. When Roman first shows up to argue a case after William’s death, his client is Derrell Ellerbee (DeRon Horton), a black teenager who participated in a convenience store robbery with a friend but was stunned when his friend pulled a gun and killed the cashier. Because the shooter is still at large, the prosecutor has charged Derrell with first-degree murder to scare him into copping a plea for a lesser charge and accepting a five-year prison sentence. This is nothing new to Roman; for years he’s been organizing a giant class action lawsuit, personally interviewing some 3,500 wronged defendants, that he thinks could trigger major reform of federal sentencing. And George—whom Roman derides as “a low-flying bee” for his professional history of pleading out his poorer clients—is just guilt-ridden enough to consider funding the suit.
Great characters always have the potential to change; such is the case with George and, unfortunately, with Roman as well. Frustrated by the condescension of his well-heeled new coworkers and shamed by his own blunders in the plea-negotiation process, Roman is beaten and robbed one night by a scuzzy white hipster, and the trauma snaps him out of his long-held idealism. “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful,” he tells George. Hoping to scare up some money and reward himself materially after years of sacrifice, Roman secretly commits an ethical violation that could get him disbarred, which then places him at the mercy of one of his clients. “Purity can’t survive in this world,” he tells Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a young activist who’s taken a shine to him. “The conditions are too barren.” Like old Rip Van Winkle, Roman has emerged from his slumber into a nation much changed, though the story turns tragic only when he decides to live there. v