I don’t really know if Roman J. Israel, Esq. can be summed up in a few sentences—and maybe that’s why it was largely tossed aside when it was released a few months ago. In lieu of tightly-woven plotting, Dan Gilroy instead gives us something far looser at the seams, studying a character with close intimacy and seeing what they would do rather than forcing a plot on them. The character is a middle-aged defence lawyer (Denzel Washington) with an eidetic memory and poor interpersonal skills who drowns out the world with his music and works to actively fight for the black community. The costs of doing so are great, both financially and emotionally (as he soon learns when his partner has a fatal heart attack and he must continue on his own). He also has to compete with the big-shots with expensive suits who are well-versed in soothing bromides and the art of plea bargains. For Roman J. Israel, the system needs fixing, and he wants to get the ball rolling. Whether he can live up to his principles is another matter.
Taking a more cerebral approach after the pulpy thrills of Nightcrawler, Gilroy paints Roman’s world with a lot of sensitivity (which I appreciated). Creating an autistic defence lawyer would simply be asking for trouble in any other capacity, yet here Gilroy is attuned to the precariousness of the situation. Denzel, meanwhile, fills in the blanks with a great amount of finesse, as he is always wont to do. His Roman isn’t a great conversationalist, is clearly at his best when he’s doing his own thing, and possesses some nervous tics that get the better of him, but none of these things overwhelm the character to the point he is only a token of his disability. Not at all. Roman is a savant, but he is also something of a trailblazer with a brilliant mind and a big heart, and most importantly, he is prone to making errors that take him two steps back when he wants to move forward. It’s not a revelatory approach on its own; it’s only when you add the legal aspects that the setup becomes truly digestible, and having a background in law or criminology helps make it even better (well, for me, anyway).
Even with the tighter edits introduced after TIFF, there are still maybe ten or fifteen minutes that could be shaved off here, as it doesn’t justify its two-hour runtime. Not sure if I can ever buy Colin Farrell as a hardnosed American lawyer, either, but bless him if he doesn’t try. In any case, glad I didn’t dismiss this one because of the middling reviews, and good on the Academy for recognising Denzel for this inspired showing.