‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’: What Are We Willing to Do or Sacrifice for Our Beliefs?

By Tracy Wang

A film about a small law firm lawyer who is set on the road to justice, ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq’ is soon revealed to be a film that is mostly held-up by Denzel Washington’s performance alone. Directed and written by Dan Gilroy, the character-driven film shines positive light on how we should all hold on tight to our beliefs, but its quite fragmented storyline distracts us from truly absorbing this film as a coherent whole.

As a legal drama film, it begins with the main character, Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington), typing out his own sentence for betraying the belief of fighting the good fight he has held for a long time. Soon, it shows that his long time partner of a two-people law firm has a heart attack; since the firm is bankrupt, George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a lawyer put in charge of the firm if Roman’s partner were unable to perform his duty any longer, takes charge. Now looking for a job after he has put everything (family, girlfriend, hobbies) on hold for this two-people law firm, he struggles in finding one, and meets Maya (Carmen Ejogo). Having everything he believed put into test, he finally breaks down, and accepts 100,000 award money for revealing the whereabouts of a killer. However, can he really give up everything he has ever believed and done? Can the big amount of money extinguish his fire for justice?

Overall, director Gilroy has successfully created a real and common character who is a tad bit more stubborn and socially-awkward than what we normally see on screen and in real life. Israel is like an evergreen which seems to be unnatural and unrealistic to have in today’s materialistic world, and the character is brought to life by the many details of his habits (turning a 90 degree angle outside the gate to his apartment building), clothing (always the same old-fashioned suit) and insistent nature (repeatedly calling the police department for the construction site noise beside his building at night). We cannot help but remember all his habitual actions, and his out-of-fashion clothes; his inability to be versatile or flexible in talking to judges, clients and coworkers even starts to irritate the audience a bit.

But our irritation at his lack of changes and flexibility is indeed a good indicator in saying how Gilroy has built a character of flesh and blood, and in revealing our often-inability to fight for a belief like he does. How he sacrifices many parts of his life in order to fight for what he firmly believes (fighting for the poor, the voiceless, and fighting to end the inequality in the legal world) is a feat that many of us cannot pull through, and it serves like an alarm that is  shrill, uncomfortable, and yet necessary.

However, what fragments this film is the not-quite-enough emphasis on the inequality and issues of the legal system, as well as the lack of coherence to the whole storyline. Some scenes have been dedicated to the unfairness of the legal system, and they are quite revealing, but the few instances of it cannot really build up Israel’s need and drive to make changes to the system. Also, though the major events of the narrative are clear enough, they somehow have the feel of fragmentation. The result is that we are mainly being driven by the character of Israel alone.

A film of significant topics, ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq’ falls short to bring audiences into the chaotic and problematic legal world.