When I first looked Roman J. Israel, Esq., in 2017, I didn’t like it. I really I didn’t like it, as the review I posted at the time clearly shows. I found his story centerless, dancing and weaving all over the place to little effect. I loved Denzel Washington in the title role and Colin Farrell as an amoral lawyer trying to track down what made him love the law in the first place and… that was about it.
But in the five years since the film’s release, Roman J. Israel, Esq. grew on me. It still feels centerless, but I increasingly see that as a strength of the film. And Washington’s performance stuck with me in a way that few other stars get as showy as this one.
Roman J. Israel, Esq., doesn’t have much of a traditional plot. Roman has worked his entire life to make the world a better place, first as a civil rights activist and then as a low-paid lawyer, largely focused on protecting the civil rights of defendants. (His life’s work is to prepare a memoir that would argue for sweeping reforms to the plea-bargaining system.) When his longtime boss dies, Roman is drawn into the world of a high-profile, high-profile law firm. from Los Angeles, where he serves as a foil for George de Farrell, who simultaneously admires Roman and finds him deeply irritating.
Throughout the film, it seems that Roman may be neurodivergent in some way, although the film never says he is one way or the other. Washington’s performance focuses on how Roman’s moral code seems to stem from a certainty that the world should have unbreakable rules. This certainty manifests in an inflexibility throughout the film that signifies Roman struggles in social situations. He struggles to navigate interpersonal relationships with people he has just met, and he rarely even attempts to make a case in court.
I don’t think the main point of the film is whether Roman is on the autism spectrum or not, but rather than going overboard with physical tics, as many actors would, Washington takes his usual skills with motorized dialogue and turns everything down. Roman speaks with the same crackle that Washington always does, but he keeps everything low. It will not boil. He’s just trying to keep things stable. This choice is why Washington’s work succeeds where so many other “perhaps neurodivergent” stars fail.
Denzel Washington is a massive movie star, but one of the things I love about him is that he’ll alternate the kinds of high-intensity roles he’s become best known for with weirder and smaller ones that show off his range as an actor. Even when he’s playing “a Denzel Washington role,” as he is in his current Oscar-nominated turn Macbeth’s Tragedy, it will make compelling performance choices you don’t see coming. His Macbeth, for example, constantly feels like he’s improvising to get out of a bad situation into an even worse one.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. was Washington’s immediate sequel to his titanic, thunderous performance as Troy Maxson in his 2016 adaptation of August Wilson’s landmark play Fences. (In addition to acting, Washington also directed.) It’s hard to imagine two more different roles than Troy and Roman. The first is a smoldering frustration ready to explode, while the second is a man trying like hell to bring something good to the world.
In terms of screen acting, it’s often easier for critics and audiences to immediately appreciate the power an actor can bring to a character like Troy, whose life of resentments makes it feel like they could turn into something terrifying at any time. But it’s important to remember how difficult it is to play a character like Roman.
I’ve spoken to a number of actor friends over the years about the hardest roles for them to play, and many have mentioned the difficulty of playing a character who is unerringly moral and decent. It’s easier to watch someone who always makes the wrong choices, because doing the wrong thing is often a lot more fun. Watching someone who just tries to do the right thing, even when the world gets in their way? It’s much, much harder for an actor to make convincing.
Yet that is exactly what Washington is doing in Roman. It shows how boring someone with a committed and unwavering moral compass can be, in a way that I didn’t quite appreciate in my previous review. In every scene, Roman walks into a room where someone assumes they can corrupt him, and in every scene, Roman walks out of the room uncorrupted. This arc might be boring and undramatic, but I think the movie understands that the world too often destroys people like Roman, no matter how much they look and act like Denzel Washington.
Roman J. Israel, Esq., was director Dan Gilroy’s second film. The longtime screenwriter made his directorial debut with the highly acclaimed 2014 film Somnambulist, in which Jake Gyllenhaal played a gleefully malevolent videographer, scouring the nighttime streets of Los Angeles for dark and bloody footage to sell to the news. Curiously, Somnambulist and Roman function as mirrors of each other. The former argues that the amoral gets away with it simply by insisting that it should, while the latter argues that in an amoral world, morality can still succeed – but only up to a point.
From this idea springs the tension of Roman J. Israel, Esq., and the genius to cast Washington in the role. We are used to seeing Washington shave people in movies. He’s effortlessly charismatic and he tends to play successful characters. Roman is a good guy, and you’d expect a good guy played by Denzel Washington to win, right? Roman J. Israel, Esq., argues that maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe the world is too broken to let even a good man played by a charismatic movie star be successful for too long.
I did not warm up Roman J. Israel, Esq., to the point where I think it’s a secret masterpiece or whatever, but it’s a movie that stuck in my brain for a while after I initially rejected it. Not everything works, but just enough – especially Washington’s performance – to keep me thinking about its themes and characters, years after I first saw it. Movies about how hard it is to be good are common. Movies that tackle this theme in such a roundabout way like this are worth treasuring, even when not everything about them works.
Roman J. Israel, Esq., is available for digital rental and purchase. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good thing archives.
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