Roman Israel is part of a two-man law firm: he does the research and the writing, while his partner makes the court appearances. But when his partner is suddenly taken out by a heart attack, it becomes clear that the firm isn’t financially solvent, and that Roman (Denzel Washington) is ill-suited to work both sides of his cases. When a large firm comes to swallow him up, headed by George (Colin Farrell), it looks bleak for Roman’s future.
But the interesting thing about Roman is that he uses the law for social justice. He’s been working on a case for years, maybe decades, that he believes could reform the system. He is well-respected by activists and has collected clients simply by treating people like human beings. George decides to keep him around, thinking it might be good for his firm to do a little pro-bono for once. This is weird timing for Roman, who has just decided that he’s tired of working for ingrates and wouldn’t mind making a little money for once. And that’s the frame of mind he’s in when he makes a terrible, unethical, life-changing decision that could ruin or cost him his life.
There is no doubt that Denzel Washington turns in a stirring performance. Roman Israel is conflicted but he asks a lot of interesting philosophical questions. However, the performance does not make the movie. Everything else is a mess. I never fully understood what the movie was telling us: is Roman autistic? Why is he so bad with people, so out of touch, so obsessive? And it turns out that this was the least confusing part of the movie, because once it branches out from character study to mild intrigue it really spirals out of control. There’s no focus. For a film that seems poised to preach about morality, my biggest concern was whether I could write a review for a movie I walked out on.
Roman is a little too quirky and the script is a lot too unbelievable. Nothing came together for me and I was not entertained or even interested. Pass.