This is an odd duck to be sure, but it should come as no surprise that when you place Denzel Washington front and center in your odd-duck story, you get something rather unique. Roman J. Israel, Esq., is part mystery, part thriller, but all wrapped up in a measured character study courtesy of writer-director Dan Gilroy, best known in Hollywood as a high-profile screenwriter (The Bourne Legacy; Kong: Skull Island). As a filmmaker, he has darker intentions, as is evidenced in his eerie 2014 debut Nightcrawler.
Washington plays the titular character, a middle-aged criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles with a brilliant analytical mind, a gift for legal research, and virtually no skills as a trial attorney. For decades, he’s worked as the silent partner at a boutique law firm, providing his more courtroom-savvy peer (whom we never see) with all of the rulings, background, and paperwork he needs to win in court. Roman simply puts on his headphones and buries his head in the books until the work is done. There’s even some evidence (although it is never discussed) that he may be on one spectrum or another, but it’s entirely possible he’s simply socially deficient.
Roman’s partner unexpectedly dies, leaving him without a job or a mission in life. He lives in a fairly rundown apartment and eats the same thing every day to keep costs down, which is probably fine given his financial outlook. As he’s finishing up the last of his work, in walks George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of his partner who has become a shark in an expensive suit, there to recruit Roman to do research for his higher-profile firm. Hesitant, Roman accepts but finds that his instincts as a defender of the underdog often come into conflict with what Pierce is doing.
As fascinating as it always is to watch Washington work, his characterization of Roman is particularly interesting because he’s not playing him as the confident hero or blustery crusader. Those traits are clearly in Roman’s head but only peek out when the coast is clear. As we find out more about his past, we discover that he used to be on the front lines of Civil Rights law and the fights that accompanied such cases in the 1960s and ’70s. There’s very little in the way of story, which isn’t a complaint, considering how easy it is to watch Washington do his thing for two hours. Eventually one does kicks in.
He befriends Maya Alstone (Carmen Ejogo), who works in a non-profit group that seems to be taking on social injustices on a smaller scale than Roman did years earlier. She recruits him to speak to her group of young activists (shockingly, this does not go well), but eventually the two begin dating, and the relationship encourages him to get his act together in terms of his appearance (he’s still sporting a powerful Afro and suits that look at least 30 years old) and social graces.
Around this time, Roman also picks up a case involving an innocent man (Niles Fitch) accused of murder. Flirting with the idea of turning this story into a moral dilemma, filmmaker Gilroy has Roman turn over the identity of the guilty man to the relatives of the deceased for a sizable reward that betters Roman’s life considerably and gives him the ability to feel less humble about where he lives and how he presents himself. Legally, the move is questionable, but if we’re talking strictly about the way the audience is meant to react, it doesn’t seem like that unreasonable a move, undercutting the movie’s dramatic tension to a degree. The end almost justifies the means, and even when someone finds out what he’s done and threatens to expose him, it doesn’t seem that dicey.
As a crime drama, Roman J. Israel, Esq., isn’t exactly ramping up the tension or providing us with any real insurmountable conflict in the character’s life. We want him to improve himself, perhaps even reconnect with his roots as a defender of the less fortunate, who he sees as the real victims of the judicial system. But as a character piece, the film succeeds on nearly every level. Roman is a multi-faceted person, who does not always behave the way you think he will or should, which is a bit like most of us. We are compromised and flawed; we are almost always self serving, but most of us also don’t typically set out to hurt others.
I’d recommend the movie to those who enjoy watching the process and skill of acting, to watch Washington make it look easy, even when he’s playing a character for whom life is not often easy. If you look too hard at the movie around him, you might lose interest, but as an acting exercise it’s wonderful.