Roman J. Israel (Washington) is a lawyer in a small firm who is fighting a losing battle. As a criminal defence lawyer, he tries to give his clients a fair trial and fighting chance against a legal system plagued by prejudice and racism. When his partner has a heart attack, Israel’s job is put in jeopardy until George Pierce (Farrell) gives him a job, seeing potential in Israel and admiring the care and attention he gives his clients. Now in the big leagues, things change quickly for Israel, and after his mishandling of a case has fatal consequences, he wonders if he ought to rethink his way of life.
Writer-director Dan Gilroy is best-known for the critically acclaimed Jake Gyllenhaal starrer Nightcrawler but hasn’t been particularly busy in the years since. His only credit between Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel, Esq. is screenplay writer on Kong: Skull Island, and while that film doesn’t speak much in his favor, there is an improvement, albeit not a total return to form, with Roman J.
Most commonly referred to as a legal drama, Roman doesn’t get quite into the nitty gritty parts of law and order, and at times it adapts characteristics of thriller and crime films without ever really becoming either. Rather, Roman is best-viewed as a character study, and while as a performance it isn’t as compelling as Denzel Washington’s previous roles in films like Training Day, The Equaliser or Flight (to name a few), you have to hand it to the actor for trying something different and for continually choosing roles which challenge the viewer as they don’t imbue the most likable of characters.
Presentation-wise, Roman J. Israel is adorably old-school and slightly dorky, from his fro and big glasses to paper-oriented system of filing. Personality-wise, Israel is a product of the present, fuelled by frustration and an aggressive determination. His apartment is filled with images of black icons and revolutionaries such as Bayard Rustin. A self-proclaimed ‘dedicated advocate’, you deeply feel for Israel as unlike the historical figures he so admires, he cannot break through the glass ceiling of his epoch (he is stilted in his efforts to bring forth a plea reform brief he has worked on it for years which is intended for federal court and would be a landmark for criminal cases). Moreover, this is a man who is not supported by crowds but fights alone. In one particularly harrowing scene, he sticks up for two young women and his defence of them is so misread by the offended ‘social justice warriors’ that somehow, he is the one who ends up demonised.
In supporting roles, Farrell is flawless as Pierce while Carmen Ejogo is a warm addition as Maya Alston, a woman working at a largely volunteer organisation which advocates for civil rights. Primarily though, this is Denzel’s show, and while enjoyable, it doesn’t always hold water plot-wise and seems to lack focus. Moreover, the feeling one is left with following the finale is dejection rather than the uplifting motivation it likely intended.