The ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ verdict is in. Washington’s marvelous performance is better than the film
Written/directed by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” – Pay attention to the man behind the curtain.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington) and William Henry Jackson have championed civil rights as defense attorneys in Los Angeles, Calif. for decades, but suddenly, life – as it occasionally or often does - dramatically changes. William suffers a heart attack and lies unconscious in MLK Community Hospital, and their secretary asks Roman to cover the day’s cases but tells him to just ask for continuances.
Don’t rock the boat.
The audience soon learns – via Roman’s explanation – that William is the face of the firm. William goes to court and litigates their cases, while Roman pours over books and legal precedents in the office. Yes, William is the face of this partnership, but now – whether Roman likes it or not – the outside world must pay attention to the man behind the curtain.
Washington steps onto the big screen after his electrifying performance as a flawed father and husband in “Fences” (2016) to play a different type of semi-damaged soul as Roman, who is thoughtful and altruistic, but he is also unusual and eccentric.
He refreshingly speaks frankly but does so at inappropriate times, especially when a judge warns him that he could be found in contempt.
He almost always sports a pair of headphones last seen in 1995, and they are attached to his iPod, packed with 8,000 songs.
He frequently pushes up his glasses which slide down his nose during intense working hours and one-on-one conversations, and he walks everywhere, including back and forth from his tiny apartment where he frequently dines on his favorite sandwich.
After practicing for decades, why is this law partner living like a hermit in a modest place? Well, over the course of writer/director Dan Gilroy’s (“Nightcrawler” (2014)) 2-hour 9-minute film, Washington’s absorbing, thought-provoking performance effectively taps into our curiosity and reveals the internal workings of a deeply intriguing character.
Roman’s speaks to disadvantaged clients – like Derrell (DeRon Horton) - who cope with crowded court schedules and daunting plea deals. He also clearly sees the socioeconomic impacts working against this particular 17-year-old whose only crime was choosing a bad friend, but faces five years in prison in a best-case scenario. By quickly establishing Roman’s sound moral center, both director and actor quickly gain the audience’s trust, and this allows acceptance of the character’s quirky idiosyncrasies and social shortcomings. What Roman lacks in grace, he soars with noble civil rights beliefs through his speech and actions. He is also blessed with an extraordinary, savant-like memory.
This film is a character study, and Washington makes it easy to ride Roman’s exploration – the highs and lows – of his new universe, one that no longer consists of just his office and apartment and the sidewalks that connect the two. This is a performance and a character that deserve a 4-star screenplay, but the story unfortunately feels limiting and smaller than it should. It does include a superstar lawyer, George Pierce (Colin Farrell), and an idealistic activist, Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who meet our lead protagonist and introduce him to golden opportunities of work and romance, respectively.
The moments with Maya are most encouraging for Roman, because of his previous hint about lost love in probably the only glimpse into his unknown past. His work with George fills his days, and over the course of three weeks, the picture introduces anxiety and strain for Roman and the audience.
For a legal drama, however, it does not feel like enough. At one critical moment, Roman boxes himself into a very compromising circumstance, but the stress of that particular issue never reaches the level of his complicated personal journey. Well, maybe that’s the point, because Roman’s character arc is more important than legalese dramatics, but the film’s construct does fall into familiar routines and recycled plots. Although, there is nothing recycled about Roman: a unique personality filled with influences of Bayard Rustin and Angela Davis, and living and breathing with an inner beat of The Chamber Brothers.
In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”, this man’s “Time Has Come Today”, and for better or worse, he has stepped in front of the curtain.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.