Roman J Israel, Esq. (2017)

  • Time: 129 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama
  • Director: Dan Gilroy
  • Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Tony Plana, Carmen Ejogo


Roman J Israel, Esq. is a dramatic thriller set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system. Denzel Washington stars as Roman Israel, a driven, idealistic defense attorney who, through a tumultuous series of events, finds himself in a crisis that leads to extreme action. Colin Farrell costars as the monied, cutthroat lawyer who recruits Roman to his firm.

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  • In the beginning of Roman J. Israel, Esq., the sophomore effort from screenwriter Dan Gilroy, the titular character is a Los Angeles attorney who has spent the last several decades working in a two-partner criminal defense firm. Whilst his partner has the “patience for butchery” that occurs in open court, Roman prefers to be the man behind the curtain, drafting the briefs, motions and pleadings. All that changes when his partner has a heart attack and the introverted and socially awkward Roman finds himself confronting a world in which he seems to have no place.

    That’s not quite right for George Pierce (Colin Farrell), the hotshot lawyer his partner’s niece has brought in to wind down the firm that’s been acting more like a charity service, can see that Roman’s encyclopaedic knowledge and history of pro-bono work would be a huge asset to his firm even if Roman himself doesn’t fit their mould. Where George is attired in sleek suits, drives an expensive car, presumably has a fancy apartment, and is all about the bottom line, Roman schleps around in ill-fitting suits, wireframe glasses, a barely tended Afro, and believes in the law as a source of fairness and justice. He initially refuses George’s job offer but, after unsuccessful attempts at finding another job, including one at a non-profit run by Maya (Carmen Ejogo), Roman knows he has to be pragmatic and thus goes to work at George’s firm, where he does what he’s hired to do but puts off his colleagues with his unfiltered opinions.

    Though the film could have functioned well enough as a character study, Gilroy decides to amp up interest by having Roman consciously put himself in a morally suspect trap of his own making. Assigned to a case of a young man wrongly accused of murder, he decides to tell the young man’s relatives the identity of the real killer and gathers a reward of $100,000 in the process. He uses the money to get himself a couple of sharp suits, tame his hair, and rent a luxurious apartment. He takes Maya out to dinner; they share a passion for civil rights but whilst her idealism still burns bright, his is beginning to ebb. “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful,” he tells George at one point; what’s the use of keeping the faith when everyone else is content with being heathens?

    Roman J. Israel, Esq. is one of those films where it’s somewhat difficult to discern if it’s simply a good film that appears great because of its central character and the actor inhabiting the role. (The same argument could be made for Gilroy’s directorial debut, Nightcrawler.) A lesser actor might have exposed the relatively unremarkable narrative, but Denzel Washington is so compelling and embodies Roman so completely that one is nothing less than riveted. It’s a performance remarkable for its unfussiness, which is all the more impressive considering that the character could have easily tipped into tics and mannerisms. The scene where he offers his services to Maya is a mini tour-de-force – one feels his matter-of-fact pride at his capabilities, but also the despair and shame at having to essentially beg for a job. If one wasn’t already invested in Roman, then that scene seals the deal. The film works because Washington makes it work, and one wishes that it was as memorable as he is as Roman J. Israel, Esq.

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