Like his previous film, Nightcrawler, Writer-Director Dan Gilroy’s latest, Roman J. Israel, Esq., is a character study of a highly interesting character. However, does that necessarily make for a highly interesting movie?
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington) is an activist attorney that has been with the same tiny law firm for 30+ years. Though it’s never exactly stated, Roman clearly falls somewhere on the autism spectrum—his awkward interactions with others being a clear giveaway. He’s almost like a researching savant with incredible recollection. His law partner kept Roman in the back room, while he served as the public face for the firm and represented their clients in court. When his partner has a massive heart attack and it is revealed that the film has been operating at a loss for years, Roman is unemployed for the first time in decades. He tries to find a firm that has a position available in his niche, but comes up empty. During his search, he befriends Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), a civil rights activist that takes a shine to Roman. Eventually, Roman takes a job with a high-profile law firm headed by George Pierce (Colin Farrell). Roman does not fit in there at all, but in the course of representing a murder suspect, he discovers the whereabouts of his client’s friend, the man who really committed the murder. There is a reward for information leading to the man’s capture—money that Roman sorely needs. Will he abandon all his ethics and principles to cash in? And if so, how will that turn change his life?
As a character study, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is an immensely interesting film, but as the thriller it tries to morph into, it doesn’t really work. The thriller aspect comes into the film far too late—about two-thirds of the way into the film—for the proper tension to develop. I also found the narrative a little too compressed to be believable. All of these events happen to Roman over the course of three weeks and to me, that felt a little too quick, considering everything that happens and how his life changes. However, these elements are what keep Roman J. Israel, Esq. from being great, but I still enjoyed it.
The main source of that enjoyment is due to Denzel Washington’s fantastic performance. He’s so great in this role, that I wish the movie around him was better. Roman is a fascinating character and I never got tired of watching Washington play him. Also, while it made zero sense that Farrell would have put up with Roman’s idiosyncrasies, I enjoyed the fact that Farrell subverted the high-powered lawyer cliché. Pierce actually seemed to have a soul, though getting there was a little uneven in the script. Regardless, it was a refreshing way to go. Ejogo also has some great scenes with Washington, though I felt the romance angle between the two was rather forced, if that’s what Gilroy was going for, it’s never entirely clear.
Overall, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is good, but it could have been great. Instead, it’s a real nice showpiece for Denzel Washington, but it’s lacking in the story department.