A lot of things happen to Roman Israel which causes him to react. It’s not until at key instances throughout the perplexed story where he takes action and happens to the story, as opposed to the story happening to him, which was clearly the case in Roman J. Israel Esq., where Denzel Washington is an overburdened, quixotic lawyer who finds himself in a clamorous succession of incidents that steer him toward a catastrophe that obligate him to take drastic measures for his own survival.
Wearing untailored, baggy suits, sporting an Afro, old-school and vintage wired headphones out of the 1980s, and living purely off of JIF peanut butter sandwiches and honey, supports our perception of Roman Israel as socially inept, but, a brilliant criminal defense attorney who loses his job when his partner of a two-man law firm suffers from a heart attack and ultimately passes on. Israel’s position within the firm was to configurate the legal arguments and his partner, whom we never met before his demise, would defend their clients in the courtroom. From an audience standpoint, it’s a bit frustrating to hear other characters talk about someone we, as the audience, have never met. Israel’s partner is often talked about and the references are often meaningless to us because we haven’t actually seen the character, we’re just supposed to care anyway.
Nonetheless, Denzel Washington is fantastic throughout the entire film in very subtle moments. He first enters the courtroom defending a case, something he’s not accustomed to doing, where he’s forced to confront an incredibly attractive female prosecuter. It is here where we learn of Israel’s chivalry and respect for woman. He’s so polite, he barely makes eye contact with her through the intense verbal exchange.
Israel is forced to begin seeking employment, and meets Maya Elston (Carmen Ejogo), an ardent advocate who’s utopianism mirrors Israel’s own, who proposes his offer for employment expecting monetary compensation, only to be shot down because it’s a voluntary firm. In this particular scene, Writer/Director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) abruptly cuts to another character sitting inside the office, getting his reaction shots multiple times, and we wait for this characters purpose in the scene, since we are seeing him multiple times throughout, but, we only to find that he doesn’t have purpose because he barely speaks, leading us to believe that the filmmakers merely needed something to cut to in the editing room to progress the scenes fluidty.
After constant attempts of selling himself in interviews, Israel lands a gig with George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a sly lawyer and the head of a prestigious firm located atop a towering skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles. Witnessing Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell work together on-screen is exhilarating and it’s a treat to see these two incredible actors share so much screen time. After Roman and George meet, it appears as though their synergy is the central aspect of the perplexing story, until we find out that it’s not.
Israel doesn’t drive motor vehicles so he either walks everywhere or takes the Metro train. There is a scene where Pierce picks Israel up in is fancy German automobile to propose a job offer and we’re given subtle intricacies to Gilroy’s impressive techniques of evoking thrills in his filmmaking as Pierce drives at a rapid pace through the city streets to constantly run yellow lights before they turn red, providing us with his character traits as well as the nature of driving in the streets of the jungle that is Los Angeles. We, as the audience, jump into the skin of the protagonist, and feel the anxiety Roman Israel contains as he rides shotgun.
Since Israel doesn’t drive, he’s always pounding pavement and Dan Gilroy does an almost perfect job of portraying the realism behind the streets of Los Angeles; seeing a homeless person dead on the street corner is commonplace around the city of Los Angeles. We’re empathetic toward Israel’s plea to leave his business card on the corpse for the coroner for contact information so that the body can be identified. But, when the LAPD arrive at the scene, they wish to simply take the corpse away to have it cremated. Any native of Los Angeles will confirm that it’s a city where the bears fly the skies, and as Roman walks down the streets of downtown, countless times throughout the story, we never hear any choppers.
Dan Gilroy succeeded in creating a world in the life of Roman Israel. He succeeds in creating a skin-jump, where the audience becomes one with the protagonist. It would be a mistake to label Roman J. Israel, Esq. as a ‘character’ film; all films, in essence, should be ‘character’ films because it is the characters that drive the story forward. Perhaps, It might be better suited to label this film a character study, it unambiguously appears to be the lay of the land in this story since it’s filled with such engrossing parts within a complicated plot that at times felt confusing, but, you continue to watch with enthusiasm because you have the eight-time Academy Award nominee and two-time winner in Denzel Washington who is reminding the world that he still has incredible depth and range in the characters he decides to portray.
We love seeing Israel munching on peanut butter and honey sandwiches in his studio apartment filled with knick-knacks and several hundred books lining the walls. We’re there with him, in his cozy flat, when he decides to call it night and gets some z’s, not in his bed, but in his reclining chair, tucked comfortably underneath a blanket. Denzel Washington is a true chameleon in transforming himself to play this frumpy attorney with an Afro. We marvel that the man on-screen was once Detective Alonzo, the corrupt cop from Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day.
The ending of the film is overwhelming, enthralling, and unpredictable. Without giving any spoilers, I will admit that the genuine reaction and facial expression a major character in the film reveals in regard to what occurs in the climax is authentic. The aftermath of the climax reverts to Israel’s life-long dedication to a litigation proceeding in an oversized suitcase filled with years of research consisting of legal documents in a proposal that Israel had to take down the criminal defense system.
Overall, the story didn’t feel like it knew what it was. The sequence of events weren’t moving forward to any particular goal proposed in the set-up and after the first act, the story unknots confusingly, resulting in further tanglement. Dan Gilroy includes the advanced screenwriting technique known as a double reversal, where the hero and the villain both learn something from each other. Though George Pierce initially feels like Roman Israel’s adversary, it’s heartfelt to see that he ends up being Israel’s ally as the two characters rub off on each other with Pierce’s transformation from cold-blooded to softhearted and Israel’s transformation from a man of honor to a somewhat sly double-dealer. Dan Gilroy’s script is filled with so much jargon it’s difficult to stay alert with the proper attention span, but, we trudge on with our eyes and ears and stay seated because we love the performances we’re seeing on screen.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a convoluted jambalaya of a film with courtroom thrills and morality tales, but, ultimately, we can conclude that it’s merely a story about a man and the events that occur to him in a span of three weeks. It’s inevitable for the film to be poorly paced in its editing because of such a long-drawn-out plot, but, we continue to watch with excitement because it’s Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell giving exhilarating performances amid excellent techniques in thriller filmmaking.
In a time where Hollywood is only interested in tentpoles and catering to a global audience, are hat’s must go off to Dan Gilroy in writing and directing a fictional story. The world he creates takes us directly into the skin of a man of integrity who chose a career over a family. A man who goes against his own principles because “…purity can’t survive in this world. The livings are barring. It’s very difficult to be truthful.” Roman Israel is a man with the title of esquire; “A title of dignity; above gentleman and below knight.”
There’s something very special tied amid the knots of the film’s plot and despite its complications, it’s promising to see a filmmaker like Dan Gilroy writing and directing this piece of cinema. As Roman J. Israel says himself, “Let us pardon each other’s folly” because “Each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”