TIFF 2017: Roman J. Israel, Esq. Film ReviewPosted by Wilson Morales
September 15, 2017
Heading into the Toronto International Film Festival as a late and surprise entry, there was a lot of anticipation to see Denzel Washington’s latest film, the legal drama Roman J. Israel Esq.. With no trailer being shown, no one knew if this film would muster a strong buzz to garner Washington a second consecutive Oscar nomination following last year’s Fences. Having onboard director-writer Dan Gilroy, whose debut film was the sensational Jake Gyllenhaal starred-film Nightcrawler, the odds were high as expected. Sadly, while Washington delivers another breathtaking solid performance, the film itself is stuck with an incohesive plot and meandering scenes.
Set in downtown Los Angeles, Washington plays Roman J. Israel, Esq., a lawyer so set in his ways after working for one man for over 30 years. Savant-like, Roman works in his office listening to Gil Scott-Heron on his old school headphones. He knows the legal system so well, he barely touches the computer. His memory of the law is impeccable and unchallengeable. Although he acts like a paralegal because of his appearance, he’s actually the silent partner to William Jackson, and together they defended the poor at criminal cases. When Jackson, a character never shown on screen, suffers a heart attack, Roman is quick to point out that he was the brains behind the firm and that he should take over the firm. To his surprise, Jackson’s niece Lynn (Amanda Warren) informs Israel that due to mounting bills, all cases and the business will be transferred over to a larger firm run by George (Colin Farrell). Seems that William and Roman took on one-too-many pro bono cases that worsened over time.
Seeking employment elsewhere, Roman goes to a non-profit firm run by Maya (Carmen Ejogo), where he offers his civil rights expertise but he’s turned down because they can’t afford him and there’s no opening. Never one to save money, as his lifestyle suggests, he reluctantly takes George’s offer to work for him and under George’s rules. He needs to come to work in a suit and take the cases he’s handed. Returning to work with raspberry suits and keeping to himself doesn’t earn him new friends, yet Roman tries to tow the line. When a case he’s handed presents him the opportunity to change his lifestyle, he goes for it, not realizing the consequences it has to his idealism.
From the outset, Washington is mesmerizing as Roman. His 60s look, his outfits, and mannerisms suggests that we’re in for a treat, but with a convoluted plot that never stops turning, it’s frustrating to see Washington hold this on his own. As intelligently written the film is, one would expect that the legal jargon Roman displays in the beginning would come back to have some effect, but that too got lost in the shuffle. Characters played Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt and DeRon Horton come and go without having any emotional ties. In the end and at a running time of 133 minutes, this “character study” of a film is still incomplete.