Hope don’t get the job done.
There’s something about introverted characters (possibly on the Autism spectrum) with poor social cues battling their own internal morality that writer/director Dan Gilroy loves. Nightcrawler saw a hard-working sociopath sever ties with virtue before gleefully embracing the spoils of his decision. Gilroy provided a descent into the nightmarish hell-scape of opportunism and greed without any optimistic hope that a reversal could be found or followed—a cynical look at society’s ills. So it’s only natural that his sophomore effort behind the camera would seek to reclaim a place for idealism despite our world’s penchant for making such a mindset more liability than benefit. With Roman J. Israel, Esq. Gilroy has a chance to show how things aren’t so bleak. With the right inspiration, we can salvage our souls.
It won’t be a smooth ride, however. As we meet Roman’s (Denzel Washington) civil rights lawyer turned criminal defender who made his career as the behind the scenes brains to his law partner’s public charisma (his lack of patience and restraint rendering him unfit to operate in a courtroom where people could punish him by punishing his clients), he’s drafting a cover sheet for a case wherein he’s both plaintiff and defendant. Something has occurred to force his hand and label himself a villain unfit to practice law or exist. Its hyperbolic, tongue-in-cheek verbiage has us wanting to smile if not for the fact that the voice reading each word does so with the utmost severity. Roman has come to grips with his actions and their unavoidable consequences.
We rewind three weeks to witness his journey to that moment: the fall from grace of a man driven by an objective code of ethics for close to forty years. It’s not a lesson about greed and opportunism this time, however. Roman falls prey to convenience and the allure of one wrong turn being an affordable cost to get back on track. Morality, after all, isn’t free. It’s hardly a coincidence that those with charitable means and pro bono branches are mostly rich enough to afford the risk altruism possesses. And for someone like Roman who was kept in the dark as to how he and William Henry Jackson were able to stay afloat for so long just helping the less fortunate, that realization is a tough blow.
It arrives with Jackson’s sudden heart attack. Roman attempts to fill his partner’s shoes, but it’s not long before his stubbornness angers an entire courtroom of people who’ve become complacent as far as allowing justice to devolve into a system where innocents plead guilty to avoid the financial and human cost of trial. He discovers he has two options: attempt to procure another job of which his heart can be proud (difficult considering his off-putting and adversarial persona) or accept an offer from Jackson’s former student George Pierce (Colin Farrell), the type of corner-cutting lawyer Roman despises. By staying true to himself, he either starves or sells out (before probably getting fired). So what happens if he takes door number three? What if he joins the status quo?
This is the point in which Roman does something he knows is wrong because he’s finally opened his eyes to the fact that everyone else does too. Why should he remain so entrenched in a bygone era of chivalry, decency, and innocence when his reward is getting yelled at, dismissed, and held in contempt? What he does is for the greater good too—an anonymous act that helps put a guilty criminal behind bars. But what about the double standard? What about the reality that he also becomes a criminal with this act? He’ll live with it. He’s not the type of person to wrestle with a decision after the fact anyway. He made his choice with sound, analytical mind. It’ll be fate’s hand that provides his punishment.
As a result, Roman J. Israel, Esq. becomes heavy-handed and slow. It takes a lot of build-up to put him in a position to compromise his ideals and almost as much to watch him reap the benefits of a life he used to turn his nose towards. And all the while he’s helping those around him who’ve become jaded like us all. He provides a calming, empowering voice of good for Maya Alston’s (Carmen Ejogo) activist and George Pierce’s lawyer. They see a piece of themselves in Roman’s untarnished giant that they’ve lost. They acknowledge his strength to make it without sacrificing his identity just as he decides to do exactly that. But watching their awakening might be what he needs to realize he made the wrong choice.
The final twenty to thirty minutes come with welcome suspense as the karmic ramifications of Roman’s deed arrive. It’s not a matter of his conscience eating away his insides, but the external forces his desperate act unleashed. We see what happens when a good person becomes so frustrated with a world that rewards deception and greed that he rolls the dice. We listen to him try and justify what was ostensibly the white collar equivalent to what his clients do—namely getting themselves in situations beyond their control because of a system that keeps their backs against the wall like Derrell Ellerbee (DeRon Horton) (who didn’t pull the trigger, but helped the man that did). And just as the prosecutor trumps up Derrell’s charges, Roman escalates his own.
So there’s a lot of mirroring going on as Gilroy flips the table on Roman multiple times in order to ensure we consume his message. We watch him become the steadying hand to Maya and George that Jackson was to him just as he loses his way without it. But where there isn’t much nuance plot-wise in this parable, Washington provides more than enough himself to compensate. His is a towering performance with great vulnerability, resentment, and passion. Just when we think he’s lost completely, something happens that lets his inherent humanity kick in as reflex. It’s these little moments that make his new friends stand in awe despite always having been told his code was laughably unrealistic. Sometimes fights are only acknowledged as worthwhile in defeat.
 Denzel Washington stars in Roman J. Israel, Esq. PHOTO BY: Glen Wilson © 2017 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
 Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell star in Columbia Pictures’ ROMAN J. ISRAEL ESQ. PHOTO BY: Glen Wilson © 2017 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
 Carmen Ejogo stars in Roman J. Israel, Esq. PHOTO BY: Glen Wilson © 2017 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.