ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravátt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom
MPAA Rating: (for language and some violence)
Running Time: 1:57
Release Date: 11/17/17 (limited); 11/22/17 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 21, 2017
At one point in his life, Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) was an idealist. He was a tireless advocate for civil rights, putting the racial injustices of the United States to the test in the court of law. One character calls him a savant of legal matters, and indeed, he can quote law by code and section. The work was good back then, and it served him well.
This was decades ago, though, and now Roman is stuck in a cramped office at a two-partner law firm, surrounded by boxes and files. He's never in court, because his expertise is in briefs and not procedure, and it shows. He's a bit rounder around the stomach these days, and his suit gives him the appearance of a man drowning in department store-level cloth. Whatever work the firm can get from its criminal clients is used to pay the bills and to cover the expenses of whatever pro bono civil rights cases they still can handle. If the work pays Roman's bills, it's only by a hair.
The glory days are finished. At least Roman still has the same hairstyle that he had back in those days and hundreds of songs from the era, which he listens to on his earbuds—with a complete disregard for the rest of the world—as he hobbles down the street. When there's nothing new to be gained, the only choice is to cling to what you have left.
Roman is a sad, nearly pathetic figure, and he'd be completely pathetic if not for the inherent fire that burns within any performance from Washington. The fire of his performance in Roman J. Israel, Esq. is so reduced that it seems more like a smolder, but Washington gives Roman the dimmest of light beneath his awkward ways with other people, his clear desire to keep to himself as much as possible, and the obsessive way that he throws himself into his work. There has to be a reason that Roman keeps working at this, even as the clients are disappearing, civil rights activism has changed, and the paths for something greater than what he's doing now are closing themselves off from him.
The film, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, puts that notion to the test from the start. Roman's partner is hospitalized after a heart attack, and as much as Roman holds on to the idea of a recovery, it doesn't seem likely. Roman covers his partner's court dates, instructed by the family to get continuances on the cases, but in a foolhardy attempt to prove that he can handle the workload, he argues himself into a contempt of court charge. Another attorney named George Pierce (Colin Farrell), who was a former student of the partner, is brought in to oversee the dissolution of the law firm. In a single day, Roman finds himself without a partner, without a job, and without any prospects that he deems worthy of his services.
There's a fine line between principles and downright stubbornness with Roman, as we see after Maya (Carmen Ejogo) invites him to speak at the civil rights organization that she runs. He had been looking for a job there, breaking down in tears as his recitation of his qualification starts to become a form of begging, and Maya, aware of his reputation and his role all those years ago, takes some pity on him. The speech becomes a heated back-and-forth with the younger audience members, who aren't prepared to be spoken to as directly as Roman does.
Breaking down, he takes a job at George's firm, which is as aggressive in its sales pitch as it is expensive in its attorney fees. Roman is once again confined to a small office, doing all of the research and writing for lawyers who make far more money than he does.
The early sections of the film are engrossing in the way they reveal this character as a man who has become so ingrained in his job that it has become habit, so married to his habits that they have become wearisome, and so weary with the world that he's willing to throw all of it away if the opportunity arises. That last part becomes the thin thread of the film's plot. After speaking a bit too long and outside of his pay bracket with one of the firm's new clients, who has been charged with the murder of a convenience store clerk during an armed robbery gone wrong, Roman learns the name and location of the real killer. Instead of consulting with George or going to the police, he collects a sizeable bounty from a relative of the clerk, in exchange for information about the murderer.
The story quickly and rather bluntly becomes a morality play, as Roman finds himself in the kind of money that he previously could never have dreamed of having. If not for the lengthy work of establishing this character as both a man of principle and a man who is so desperate for something more that he's willing to concede those principles, the resulting plot could have deteriorated into a straightforward thriller (The script eventually turns in that direction, although it comes so late that it feels like the natural, inevitable outcome of what has come before it).
Instead, Roman J. Israel, Esq. directly confronts the allure of ill-gotten gains, the price of compromise, and the consequences of selling out for something that ultimately means nothing. This is a fine character study, anchored by Washington's off-kilter, out-of-character performance and a sincere curiosity about testing the ideals of this man.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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