Not everyone fighting for equality can be found on the frontline. There has to be someone in the shadows, toiling away, fueled by indignation, righteousness, and uncompromising ethics. Roman J. Israel is such a man.
For years, Israel (Denzel Washington), the partner of a charismatic litigator, has spent his time locked away in an office, pouring over books, finding inconsistencies, and plotting his greatest civil rights coup. But his partner has fallen into a coma, incapacitated by a heart attack. Suddenly, the office is dissolved, the clients are moved to a large and affluent firm run by a former student of Israel’s partner, and Israel finds himself looking for a job. He eventually takes a position at the new firm, run by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), but not after coming to the harsh reality that the social activism of the 1960s and ’70s has evaporated into an apathetic cloud of Los Angeles smog.
On its surface, Roman J. Israel, Esq. appears to be a rallying cry of social justice for the underrepresented. It is — in several notable scenes, including the conclusion — but it’s also a movie about how the world corrupts even the seemingly incorruptible. At one point, Israel looks out a high-rise window to the congested L.A. freeway below: there are a million stories out that window, but none of them are any more special than the other.
In this regard, Roman J. Israel, Esq. makes for an interesting noir film. Like many noirs, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is set in an uncaring, urban landscape — L.A. plays itself — involves a detour to a vast and hostile wasteland where physical harm is possible and admissions are made — “I made a bad choice, not my first.” — and takes an otherwise noble character — “Better than a gentleman, less than a knight.” — and sends him through the wringer. And like many noir protagonists, Israel doesn’t come out the other side clean.
Writer/director Dan Gilroy — whose previous efforts produced the equally stark, but much greater Nightcrawler — teams once again with cinematographer Robert Elswit to capture the city that famously swallows all who inhabit it. Roman J. Israel is a bit tedious at times — a side trip to Santa Monica all but stops the story cold — but the overall package ends up at the destination intact if slightly damaged. Washington is slightly out of his element, mainly because his character requires him to be less forceful than his performance is comfortable with. Israel might have worked better if Washington wasn’t playing a savant; then again, it might have worked better if Washington pushed it even further, making Israel intolerable. It holds the movie back, trying to walk a razor’s edge while claiming: “Each one of us is greater than the worse thing we’ve done.”
True, but you got to earn it.