Whatever faults you find in Roman J. Israel, Esq as a movie – it tends to meander – there is no disputing the start-to-finish excellence of Denzel Washington in the title role. You may think you know Washington as an actor, but you've never seen him like this. He is riveting as Roman J. Israel, Esq. – he likes the formality of the name – a Los Angeles-based lawyer whose ideals (and three-inch Afro) are stuck in the social-activist 1960s that formed him. A silent partner in a law firm specializing in pro bono cases, Roman is on the spectrum, his brilliance at odds with his social awkwardness. Washington is a performer known for his quick reflexes and eyes that lock on every dare, big and small (think of him in Malcolm X or Fences). But his challenge as Roman is to play an attorney who ducks direct contact and looks away every chance he gets. Washington rises superbly to the challenge. In no way is his performance a stunt. Washington digs so deep under the skin of this complex character that we almost breath with him. It's a great, award-caliber performance in a movie that can barely contain it.
A bad thing? Not always. Writer-director Dan Gilroy is an astute filmmaker with a keen eye for nuance. Gilroy's masterful 2016 debut with Nightcrawler, starring a never-better Jake Gyllenhaal as an L.A. crime scene cameraman unburdened by scruples, had a rattlesnake intensity. Roman J. Israel, Esq. moves more deliberately, taking its time to introduce us into Roman's world, including his apartment with its posters of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin and jazz and funk LPs (he favors Pharoah Sanders) he can play while hammering at his manual typewriter. The pacing is hell on the short attention spans that rule the multiplex. But the rewards are enormous for those who appreciate a character study done with patience and sneaky provocation.
The film begins in crisis. Roman's law partner dies and he's left flailing. His few court appearance are a disaster; his tendency to blurt out the truth gets him held in contempt. Out of a job, Roman stumbles around like a legal Willy Loman, carting a huge briefcase filled with his lifelong passion project, a class action suit that he hopes will end the unjust sentencing of indigent African Americans. Roman interviews at a nonprofit run by Maya (a soulful Carmen Ejogo), but to her young staff Roman is like something from another time that should have been buried.
Roman finds a mentor in George (Colin Farrell), a super slick legal shark who sees Roman's savant ability to memorize a library of law books as an asset. Soon Roman becomes George's Rain Man. Farrell plays him with a mix of awe and exploitation that's too easy to dismiss as villainy, as it would in a lesser film. Surrounded by the wealth and plush surroundings of the modern legal world, Roman makes his first ethical compromise (no spoilers). Out go the retro suits, the Afro and the social conscience. “I'm tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful” is the way Roman puts it. And suddenly he's living large.
If you think you can see where this is going, you're probably right. Gilroy his hasn't invented fresh ground for Roman to trod and the film get mired in the predictable. But Washington keeps springing surprises. At one point Roman describes the "Esquire" in his name as "above gentleman but below knight." Likewise, Gilroy's movie is above standard-issue legal thriller but below the transcendent personal drama it aspires to be. No matter. The very fact that it aspires at all makes it a rare bird in paycheck Hollywood. Illuminated by Washington's humane artistry, Roman J. Israel, Esq. earns our respect.