The combination of talent in this film was enough to peak my interest. All the previous work I’ve seen from the individuals involved in the making of this movie made me believe that this could be an Oscar worthy film if the story delivers on what the trailers suggested. So, does “Roman J. Israel. Esq” deliver on a thought provoking, emotional, legal thriller or can we simply throw the book at this film? Let’s dive in and take a look in this review.
Denzel Washington is talented enough to get my attention when his name is attached to a movie. Add Colin Farrell and Dan Gilroy and I’m both curious and excited to see this story unfold. In all, the story becomes a bit challenging to itself. The story examines the life of Roman J Israel, Esq. and his time being a lawyer. It looks at his personality. How he operates on a day to day basis. His strengths, his weaknesses. The story suggests that Roman might be a legal savant (which comes with certain challenges in dealing with people face to face). However, because of his unique personality, the ending of this film isn’t as shocking as it is sad. The trailers also don’t paint an accurate portrayal for who this character is at his core. We (or at least I did) receive someone different and more complex.
The one line of dialogue that is spoken enough to make me believe its importance in the overall theme is, “mitigating circumstances.” At different trials and meetings Roman requests to have “mitigating circumstances” taken into account. So, it feels like this story is about a single mitigating circumstance (Israel breaking the law and his reasons for doing so) than it is a complete indictment against the legal system in America. Since this movie deals with lawyers, Gilroy decided to write a story that paints a picture of our current legal system being less about justice and more about numbers, win/loss percentages and why most cases never go to court. And while his views are delivered in a thought filled manner it’s the ending that gave me pause.
The movie begins with Roman losing his legal partner and friend. We also find out, as I stated above, he’s socially challenged but highly intelligent (which is common for savants). He’s also a man with a big heart for people and the law. He’s a social justice warrior but the death of his friend and the closing of his legal practice turns his life upside down and he finds himself in unfamiliar waters and situations. It’s during this time he breaks his personal code of honor (as well as the law) to create a moment of street justice that turns out to be his undoing. From there, he experiences a different life until his life is taken from him. I believe the ending of the film was meant to shock us an audience.
Roman is shot in the head by street thug who has a friend in prison because of Roman. However, the fact he is shot in the head made this film more sad for me than shocking. Knowing that he is socially challenged and unable to process things well in stressful situations made the ending a bit glum. He, as an individual with his social disability, was a mitigating circumstance. It made the story go from a guy who turned on himself and the system and is then rewarded with a bullet in the head, to a mentally challenged person acting out from a lack of support and supervision to being murdered. If this feels confusing that’s because the story felt confusing. Imagine Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” breaking the law and then being shot in the head. Roman J Israel, Esq. isn’t at the level “Rain Man” was however it’s that type of personality and mental state his character appeared to live in.
“Roman J Israel, Esq.” is in theaters now! I’m not recommending this film as a big screen viewing. This can be enjoyed equally at home from the comfort of your couch, recliner or bean bag chair. The story gets a bit muddled. The ending doesn’t deliver the way I believe was intended. However, there are some scenes that really examine the legal practice in America which may make for good after viewing discussions. As always, Denzel and Colin both deliver on performances worthy of the caliber actors they are but that’s not enough to save this film. Maybe Redbox this one for a dollar once available.