At first glance, you would think Roman J. Israel was a lawyer sent back in time, with his puffed up afro, thick rimmed glasses, and throwback style of attire. This is just who he is, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney, fighting for those who are wrongfully convicted or in dire need of a defense that believes in trying to help the client, instead of taking an easy plea deal. The only problem, Roman is socially awkward, and has spent his time being the man behind the scene in the William Jackson law-firm. When William has a stroke, leaving him in a vegetative state, this forces Roman into a world without a routine or a place to practice law, until hot-shot George Pierce (Colin Farrell) scoops him up with a second chance.
In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal delivered arguably his greatest performance, so it's clear Gilroy has an ability to draw out a rather unique kind of work from actors, especially this time from Washington. Changing things and selecting more challenging roles seems to be Denzel's new goal in life. His work as Roman is like nothing I have seen him do before. There is a lot of exterior additions to his body, but it's also his work projecting someone entirely closed off from the world. He is a man that has been destroyed by life’s many unfair realities and you see this through Washington's mannerisms, with the way Roman quickly eats a peanut-butter sandwich alone, his precise sloth-like walk with headphones on, even his inability to bite his tongue when he delivers a snarky response to others. When you pair up an inspired director with one of, if not our greatest actor of all time, the results are fascinating.
As Roman's skills become apparent to Pierce, he starts to earn a bit more case work, becomes friends with an activist named Maya (Carmen Ejogo), and finds footing for himself again. After a failed effort to plea-bargain on a case ends up getting his client killed in prison, Roman receives the blunt end of a warning from his new boss. This drives Roman to take a tip he has on the case to claim a 100K reward. For the first time in his life, Roman has taken the easy way out, instead of fighting for what is right. The riches will bring Roman a new suit, a fancy new condo, and a chance to have a positive outlook. But when paranoia starts to creep in, Roman begins to lose a sense of himself, and what made him the good person he had been.
Where the rest of Roman J. Israel Esq. goes is a winding tale. Gilroy and his cinematographer Robert Elswit do a spectacular job of always keeping us in the head of Roman, shooting Los Angeles with hazy, high above shots. There is a great sense of isolation created, in a film that defines what a character study is, but also keeps us on our toes with jarring shifts in the narrative tone. It's one of the main reasons why Dan Gilroy continues to impress me. He wants us to dig into the humans that surround us, to find out what makes a person tick. And trust me, with another great performance in the chamber from Mr. Denzel Washington, you won't be forgetting the name Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Written by: Leo Brady
MOVIE: ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.
STARRING: DENZEL WASHINGTON; CARMEN EJOGO; COLIN FARRELL; TONY PLANA
DIRECTED BY: DAN GILROY
AMovieGuy.com's RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
It's now abundantly clear writer/director Dan Gilroy has an interest in specific characters that live an isolated existence. Roman J. Israel, Esq., the follow-up to his 2014 hit Nightcrawler, is in many ways a similar story, but expanding in a more subtle, but different direction. The title character, played perfectly by Denzel Washington, is an eccentric lawyer, a savant in the legal profession, and a lonely man. Roman J. Israel, Esq. might be a story about a good man, but it's also a fantastic tale of how life pushes people to make bad decisions, no matter how good they want to be.