I walked into Roman J. Israel, Esq. with an open mind. I knew that director Dan Gilroy’s previous film Nightcrawler was dark and gritty. I also knew that Denzel Washington, before his most recent appearance in Fences, had taken a leap into the world of dark and gritty with his award-winning performance in Training Day and his antics in The Equalizer. But I didn’t know what to expect from Gilroy’s most recent foray into directing with Roman J. Israel, Esq.
You can’t deny Washington’s excellence in this film. He plays Roman J. Israel, an aging civil rights attorney who is on the autism spectrum and knows the law like the back of his hand. Roman has a penchant for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and is at odds not only with his life but also with his career. As an attorney who specialized in behind-the-scenes brief work, he was always on the right side of the law. That was until his longtime firm partner passed away, leaving him without a job.
Washington’s character is somewhat stuck in a time warp. From his outdated suits to his mini Questlove ’fro, he’s an analog guy in a digital world, with no idea how to function outside the confines of his old law office. But moviegoers who are looking for a thriller may be a little disappointed.
One of the challenges of the movie is its slow pacing. You spend the first half waiting for something to happen—anything to happen—while basking in the greatness that is Washington’s acting. Gilroy does a good job of showcasing Washington, but for those with short attention spans, the movie’s pace might prove a bit slow.
But when the “thing” does happen, you’re left wondering why it even had to go down like that.
Roman, much like Tom Hanks’ character in Forrest Gump, sees the good in the world and wants to make a difference. And Roman wants to help his clients—new-school activists led by Carmen Ejogo’s character, Maya—but unlike Forrest, who doesn’t get fed up, Roman does. And it costs him everything.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a film of substance, although a slow film of substance. Gilroy masters nuance and makes it a point to show how Roman’s life evolves from that of a do-gooder to someone who meets his breaking point. Roman J. Israel, Esq. isn’t your typical legal thriller. But then again, Washington isn’t your typical Hollywood actor.
Check out Washington, Ejogo and Gilroy discussing the film with The Root at a press junket courtesy of Columbia Pictures. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is now in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles and opens everywhere on Thanksgiving.