When I first looked Roman J. Israel, Esq., in 2017 I didn’t like it. l Real didn’t like it, as the review I published at the time makes clear. I found the story centerless, bobbing and weaving everywhere without much effect. I liked Denzel Washington in the title role and Colin Farrell as an amoral lawyer trying to recapture what kept him from the law in the first place and…that was it.
But in the nearly five years since the film’s release, Roman J. Israel, Esq. grew on me. It still feels centerless, but I see that more and more as a strength of the film. And Washington’s performance has somehow stuck with me in a way that few other stars make as ostentatious as this one.
Roman J. Israel, Esq., doesn’t have much of a traditional plot. Roman has worked all his life to make the world a better place, first as a civil rights activist and then as a low-paid attorney who focused largely on protecting the civil rights of criminal suspects. (His life’s work includes drafting a briefing that would argue for sweeping reforms to the settlement system.) When his old boss dies, Roman is swept up in the world of a high-profile, upscale LA law firm, where he acts as a foiled for Farrell’s George, whom Roman admires and finds deeply annoying.
Throughout the movie, it seems like Roman is somehow neurodivergent, though the movie never says he is somehow. Washington’s actions align with the way Roman’s moral code seems to spring from the certainty that the world should have inviolable rules. That certainty manifests itself throughout the film as an inflexibility that signifies Roman struggle in social situations. He struggles to navigate interpersonal relationships with people he’s just met, and he rarely even tries to make arguments in court.
I don’t think the film’s primary interest lies in whether Roman is on the autism spectrum or not, but instead of going way over the top with physical tics, as many actors would, Washington takes his usual skill with motormouth dialogues and turns. everything down† Roman speaks with the same chatter that Washington always does, but he keeps everything on the back burner. He’s not going to boil over. He’s just trying to keep things steady. That choice is why Washington’s work succeeds where so many other “perhaps neurodivergent” star twists do not.
Denzel Washington is a huge movie star, but one of the things I love about him is that he will alternate the kind of high-intensity roles he became known for with weirder and smaller roles that showcase his range as an actor. Even when he’s playing “a part of Denzel Washington,” as he is in his currently Oscar-nominated turn in The Tragedy of Macbeth, he’ll make some fascinating performance choices that you don’t see coming. His Macbeth, for example, constantly seems like he’s trying to work his way from one bad situation to 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 starring, Washington also directed.) It’s hard to imagine two roles more similar than Troy and Roman. The former is a smoldering frustration, ready to explode, while the latter is a man trying like hell to just bring something good into the world.
In terms of screen acting, it’s often easier for critics and audiences to immediately appreciate the power an actor can give to a character like Troy, whose life of resentment feels like they could turn into something terrifying at any moment. But it’s important not to overlook how hard it is to play a character like Roman.
I’ve talked to some actor friends over the years about which roles are the hardest for them to play, and many have mentioned the difficulty of playing a character who is unfailingly moral and decent. It’s easier to watch someone who always makes the wrong choices, because it’s often much more fun to do the wrong things. Watching someone just try to do the right thing even when the world gets in their way? That’s much, much harder for an actor to make compelling.
Yet that is exactly what Washington does Roman† He explains how annoying someone with a committed, unwavering moral compass can be, in a way I didn’t quite appreciate in my earlier review. In each scene, Roman walks into a room where someone assumes they can corrupt him, and in each scene, Roman walks out of the room unscathed. That arc could be dull and undramatic, but I think the movie understands that all too often the world bullies 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 had made his directorial debut with the critically acclaimed 2014 film night crawler, in which Jake Gyllenhaal played a gleefully evil videographer, who traveled the nighttime streets of Los Angeles in search of bleak, gory footage to sell to the news. intriguing, night crawler and Roman function as mirrors of each other. The former argues that the amoral people get their way simply by insisting that they should, while the latter argues that in an amoral world the moral can still succeed — but only to a certain extent.
From that idea arises the tension of Roman J. Israel, Esq., and the genius of casting Washington into the role. We’re used to seeing Washington bulldoze people in movies. He is effortlessly charismatic and he tends to play characters who get their way. Roman is a good guy, and we expect a good guy played by Denzel Washington to win, right? Roman J. Israel, Esq., argues that perhaps we shouldn’t. Perhaps the world is too broken for even a good man played by a charismatic movie star to pass for too long.
I’m not warmed up Roman J. Israel, Esq., to the point where I think it’s a secret masterpiece or something, but it’s a movie that stuck in my head for a while after I initially turned it down. Not everything in it works, but just enough—especially Washington’s performance—that I keep thinking about the themes and characters years after I first saw it. Movies about the difficulty of being good are common. Movies that get on that theme in a roundabout way like this are worth cherishing, even if not everything in them works.
Roman J. Israel, Esq., is available for digital rent and purchase. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good case archives.