Quick Take: Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a legal savant who should never step foot in a courtroom (at least not without a healthy contempt fund at the ready). He’s brilliant, uncensored, and completely out of step in a world that barely remembers there is such a thing as a conscience. This film is a straightforward character study all the more brilliant for its simplicity.
Denzel Washington, as Roman, is captivating. Watching Israel find (and lose) his way when his ordered world crumbles, is riveting.
It’s an original take on an old dilemma: whether you have to sacrifice ideals in order to be successful or relevant.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a witty, side-eye at the legal profession, the court system, and the ethical dilemmas that haunt us all (or should) in the day-to-day of doing business. It’s also an engrossing story about on a highly unusual man. A seriously slick soundtrack featuring some of the best of the 60s & 70s (with a few modern hits thrown in) and sharp clean visuals leads you through a story that doesn’t go anywhere you think it will from the start.
Grade: A –
The Details: It’s clear very quickly that Roman J. Israel is not your typical lawyer. He’s blunt in a way that looks involuntary, seemingly ill-equip to deal with life beyond his old school headphones (or back office). He says aloud things better left in one’s internal monologue. We meet Roman just as his world falls apart. His partner (the public face of the firm) has a heart attack and lapses into a vegetative state.
Roman J. Israel Esq. is walking, talking legal purity. He has a mind like a steel trap and an encyclopedic recall of essentially everything. His partner’s illness not only pulls him from behind his desk, it sends him to the courthouse. With little more than good dialogue, in the opening sequence, you know everything you need to know about how Roman sees the world.
Roman J. Israel grew in the 60s. An era where the law was a powerful (and active) tool for social justice. He never left. As his world unravels, Roman tries to secure employment that fits his skills and feeds his need to be of good service. But all his efforts fail. He’s forced to accept an offer from George Pierce (Colin Farrell). The man brought in to close down his old law firm.
Losing his professional anchor pushes Roman to an emotional breaking point. His every way forward appears to go against his personal ethics. His relationship with to the law, lawyering, and social activism all fail him when he’s at his lowest. Watching his (de)evolution unfold was compelling.
Roman J. Israel is who black parents demanded their kid will become (especially in the 60s and 70s): principled, passionate, and professionally ethical. There’s one scene midway through the second act that just an absolute gut-check about the differences between those called to social activism past and present. It perfectly illustrates how on too many levels people buy into the packaging of activism instead of the purpose. It illustrates the changing nature of the social justice community in a way that will (and should) echo uncomfortably for viewers of all ages.
It’s also refreshing to see a character with a savant-level skill juxtaposed against his social awkwardness not played as a plot gimmick. If Israel’s abilities are due to a mental condition (Isreal exhibits some neuro-typical behaviors of Asperger’s) it ceased to matter well before the film hits the halfway point.
In a unique reveal during the third act, Roman’s inspired Pierce to want to be better, greater than his financial success. But that same lesson ultimately costs Roman everything to re-learn for himself. And if there must be a “cleansing moment” that features the white actor (despite the main protagonist being of color) then the ending of Roman J. Israel, Esq is how it should be done. Pierce becomes the knight anointed to pick up the standard and to continue Israel’s fight, not the white savior.
.Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a cautionary tale that illustrates what can happen when a man of conscience has a crisis of faith. In a sea of movies that hesitate to truly examine ethics in action; this film may feel slightly heavy-handed. But if you walk out with that feeling, you may need to do some introspective study about your own decisions and motivations in a professional context…that’s right I said it.
Overall Rating: 3.75 out of 5