Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017) is a dramatic film that explores the legal ramifications of crossing lines as a personal defense attorney (with Asperger's Syndrome), who battles his inner demons. I was intrigued by Dan Gilroy’s interpretation of Roman's character especially the fine attention to detail. This film is directed and written by Dan Gilroy and produced by Todd Black and Jennifer Fox. Robert Elswit (cinematography) and John Gilroy (editing) join Dan Gilroy once again after collaborating on the prestigious dramatic thriller NightCrawler. This film is released by Columbia/Sony Pictures.
In the film, Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington) is a savant lawyer, who has been locked away for years, due to his inability to cope socially with the outside world. His ideals are radical, often challenging the system on a higher level of activism. His boss and friend, William Henry Jackson has recognized his ability and talent by providing employment for years, but falls ill and becomes incapable of returning to work indefinitely. In Jackson’s absence, Roman attempts to take on the firm's open cases instead of proposing continuances. He squabbles with a judge (Robert Prescott), who finds him in contempt and imposes a fine of $5000. Jackson’s long-time secretary, Vernita Wells (Lynda Gravátt) helps Roman cope, but is weary about Roman's mental condition and ability to adapt.
Eventually, Mr. Jackson slips into a coma and dies. Roman is left to salvage whatever files he has and begin to transition to the next stage in his life. He has become disconnected to the outside world. Jackson's daughter, Lynn (Amanda Warren) steps in and turns the law firm over to George Pierce (Colin Ferrell), a successful attorney (former law student of Mr. Jackson’s). Pierce closes the practice and dissolves the business into his own, while offering Roman money and severance to close the remaining cases.Roman is ill prepared to move on to the next phase of his life and doesn’t want to work for Pierce. However, he has no choice.
While Roman is looking for a job, a volunteer community activist, Maya (Carmen Ejogo) experiences the kindness and unique qualities of Roman. She confesses to her struggles with helping the community and maintaining sense of self and importance. She invites him to speak at a community gathering to share his expertise as a civil rights consultant. Roman incites an argument about feminism with two coalition activists (Jessica Camacho and Esperanza Spalding), who aggressively debate and use profanity against him in public. He leaves the meeting discouraged and embarrassed, but still maintains some sense of hope, while trying to rescue a homeless man on the street. In this scene, Roman gets into an altercation with the police that could possibly cost him his life. Maya apologizes for being so optimistic and naive, but is amazed by his courage and determination.
Later, Pierce realizes that Roman has become a great asset to his company as well as a genius defense attorney. Roman presents a brief to Pierce that he thinks will change the way the court system deals with the poor and disenfranchised. At first Pierce, ignores the request, but later he embraces in Roman's proposal.
Pierce offers him a job at his distinguished law firm to take on future cases. On one pivotal case, Roman must defend Derrell Ellerbee (DeRon Horton) who had been detained because his friend robbed an Armenian convenient store. The store clerk was shot and killed. Derrell offers to disclose the location of his friend, Carter Johnson (Amari Cheatom) and requests protective custody. Roman attempts to negotiate a plea bargain for Derrell to obtain a lesser charge, but because of his inflexibility, he aggravates the Assistant DA and ends up with no deal. The next morning Derrell has been stabbed to death, while in jail.
Roman gives up on his morals and decides that he is going to collect the reward for the whereabouts of Carter Johnson ($100,000). He has become bitter and cynical about the world that he has now been submerged into. Roman then goes on a shopping spree and considers moving into a lavish apartment that is way beyond his means. He also changes his appearance and tries to step into a pretentious new lifestyle. But to no avail; he is no longer able to pretend who he really is.
Things begin to unravel as he discovers that Pierce wants him to defend the same man that he collected the reward for (Carter Johnson). His mind begins to play tricks on him and Roman realizes that he may be in way over his head.
There's a distinct transformation of Roman’s character after he receives the reward money. We have the opportunity to observe some great acting from Denzel Washington, as the story mostly focuses on Roman's debacle over the course of 3 weeks. This demonstrates the moral and ethical issue the character grapples with. His conscience becomes a burden that has been placed upon him by Jackson protecting him from making hard decisions over the years. He is not unlike a child in the wilderness yearning for a utopian society that he fears will never come. By taking the money, Roman has betrayed the main ideals that he exists upon. His ideals have become a prison that have kept him fixed and unyielding to the ever-changing world around him. however, slowly but surely, people around him begin to see the good that Roman can do in the world.
Dan Gilroy does a great job with dialogue and characters. Having a smaller cast for this film makes sense, because Roman’s world only exists as a tiny microcosm of a bigger spectrum of problems in the universe. The direction of the film seems to veer off in places and provide audience with a soft form of closure at the end. For the most part, I believe it was well written and tells a personal and riveting story. This film demonstrates the magnificent acting ability and wide array of characters that Denzel Washington can play. Overall, I would rate Roman J. Israel, Esq. 3 out of 4 stars.