“Each of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve done,” Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington) tells a state prosecutor when trying to negotiate a lower sentence for one of his partner’s clients. She tells him that the people are firm, and he replies “People? What people? There’s just you?”
With that, we’re introduced to the mindset of Roman, as well as his stubborn, unending battle against the system he’s been fighting against his whole life. He works as “the man behind the curtain, so to speak” at a law firm dedicated to helping clients that are mercilessly thrown into the jaws of the system, denied a fair trial, and often incarcerated for undue amounts of time. His idealism has taken its toll on him, living out of a tiny apartment downtown, sustained by peanut butter and honey sandwiches and photos of civil rights activists that adorn his walls.
Roman is, by all accounts, a man out of time. His hair, clothing, and ‘fight the power’ mentality are all at odds with the changing world around him. This is underscored by a condo development going up next-door to his apartment with seemingly round-the-clock construction (his repeated noise complaints go unanswered), and the view of a new skyscraper being built out of his partner’s office window. The closest thing to modern technology he seems to deal with is his iPod, which he boasts has 8,000 songs, though he still uses Walkmen-era headphones to listen to them.
After his partner succumbs to a heart attack, their practice is absorbed by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a well-groomed, cutthroat lawyer, he offers to take Roman into his firm as a consultant. He wants to capitalize on Roman’s seemingly savant-like nature, doubling his salary which would would only make a dent in his firm’s budget.
Seeing no other options, Roman takes the offer, and his frankness soon puts him at odds with his new co-workers — the same rubber-stamping types that he’s spent his life rallying against. His attitude, and unwillingness to work within the constrained perimeters he’s been assigned, puts his new job in jeopardy almost immediately.
It’s here that Roman makes a choice that not only threatens his career, but the idealism he’s fought so hard to maintain. With it, he soon starts to abandoned his convictions for tailored Italian suits and a (slightly) more modern hairstyle. Conversely, George’s firm starts to soften its edges. It raises its prices, but opens up a a pro-bono wing of defense, which Roman is to head. “Will this affect my salary,” he asks, completely serious, though his co-workers take as good-natured humor.
The one friend he’s managed to make during this tumultuous transition, Maya (Carmen Ejogo), no longer recognizes him. She tries to speak to his activist nature for solace and encouragement, only to have him fire off a disappointed commentary about the small portion of duck l’orange he’d been served.
Before long, Roman’s decision starts to catch up to him, and the film itself curiously turns into a thriller fraught with tension. It’s an usual shift, though it plays out effectively enough, even if it pushes the compelling portrayal of Roman’s character aside.
Still, at its heart, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a fascinating look at a complex character, one that writer/director Dan Gilroy devised alongside Washington. It’s vaguely out-of-place third act aside, the film serves as a reminder about the importance of speaking out, and a timeless lesson that true change is bigger than one person. Otherwise, the burden becomes too much to carry, and can drive even the purest intentions into dark and unexpected places.
Roman J. Israel Esq is now playing in theaters everywhere