In Roman J. Israel, Esq., Denzel Washington establishes the inner life of his character without having to say a word. The film’s opening shot finds him typing at his office computer. Dark wood panels stain the walls, and the atmosphere, a moldering brown. He’s surrounded by dusty law books and papers all adorned with Post-It notes. His wardrobe, hair, and glasses date him. They mark him as analog, resignedly single, unused to being looked at, unloved. An invisible man, he works and then retreats home to an impressive record collection. When Washington does articulate Roman’s thoughts, they’re halting and unfiltered. His speech patterns and inability to make eye contact indicate that he hasn’t been socialized in any lasting or meaningful way.
This is the writer-director Dan Gilroy’s second film featuring an outsider leading a life of quiet desperation. In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal’s cameraman was ambitious enough to fight his way in from the margins of society, even if that meant having blood on his hands. Roman, however principled he once was, is exhausted from his lack of financial success and his failure to fit in. Gilroy is working in a parallel universe to the ones that David Simon creates (HBO’s The Wire and The Deuce). Both show how systemic corruption can erode an individual’s soul. That, too, is Roman’s dilemma — he must conform by abandoning his own morals, or face extinction.
Roman J. Israel, Esq.