Denzel Washington makes fascinating movies. The projects he selects are always thought-provoking and tend to focus on big questions that pull us out of the day-to-day, in-the-flesh life of immanence and into the transcendent.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is no exception, though it might surprise the casual viewer who reads the plot description: “Denzel Washington stars as Roman Israel, a driven, idealistic defense attorney who, through a tumultuous series of events, finds himself in a crisis that leads to extreme action.”
A legal thriller doesn’t automatically convey “faith!” to the mind, and this movie presents a subtle worldview, nothing overt or preachy. But the building blocks for some powerful truths are embedded into the most significant moments of this film.
This is a faith-based film review site, so questions of faith and even the worldviews and intentions of filmmakers all come into the conversation in these reviews. It’s known widely that Denzel Washington is a Christian. It’s perhaps known less widely that this film’s director, Dan Gilroy, is also a Christian. Mr. Gilroy is known for writing screenplays for mainstream blockbusters such as “The Bourne Legacy,” “Real Steel,” and “Kong: Skull Island,” and with “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” he has put together one of the most layered, thought-provoking scripts I’ve seen.
I’ll get more into the worldview material in a moment, but first let’s take a look at what makes this film enjoyable to watch. (Frankly, I think it deserved a much higher rating than the 54% on Rotten Tomatoes.)
Entertainment Value and Film Craft
Denzel Washington has done something that is always fun to watch when you go to the movies: he’s jumped out of the kind of role that most people think of when they hear Denzel’s name (articulate, magnetic characters with smooth social prowess and leading man traits) and he dove head-first into an anti-Denzel character: socially awkward, eccentric, not especially “leading man” attractive in appearance, and not good with people. But it’s not just that: he plays a remarkable genius of law, a savant who has his eccentricities, but who also has a roaring fire of idealism as an old-school civil rights champion. Put all of that into two environments–1) the upscale Los Angeles law firm world like “Suits” but on steroids, helmed by the unnervingly serene, calm and collected performance of the awesome Colin Farrell; and 2) the equally unnerving (but in a different way) lion’s den of angry, ill-mannered new-school Millennial activists who eat Denzel’s character alive when he tries to speak to them and inspire them about civil rights–and you’ve got an incredibly fascinating combination of settings and conflicts that play out in this story.
Worldviews, Themes of Redemption
“Having conflicting ideas in your head takes real effort.” This is one of many superbly quotable lines in this film, and it reflects a major theme: the double-mindedness of human nature (which is also a major theme throughout the Bible). Roman says warily at one point, “the enemy is on the inside, not the outside,” and we see throughout the story the war within himself as he sees that no matter how hard he tries, he is not only incapable of living up to some grand, absolute moral code, he is unable to live up to his own moral code or ideals. He finds himself betraying himself, and it humbles him and shakes him to the core.
It reminds me of an illustration in a Tim Keller sermon when he was talking about the law vs. grace. A man stands before God on Judgment Day, and the man complains that he never heard about God’s Law so he shouldn’t be judged by some exterior moral law. God said, “Fine, to be fair I won’t judge you by My law. I’ll let your own moral principles be your judge. All your life there has been an invisible tape recorder around your neck recording you every time you told someone that they ought to do this or not ought to do that, according to your own moral law. Let’s play the tape of your entire life back and see how you did against your own standards.” And as the tape plays, it quickly becomes clear: even by his own moral framework the man was condemned and unable to save himself. This analogy makes a sharp point: we all have not only broken God’s ultimate, eternal law, we have broken our own laws that we created for ourselves and thus proved the Gospel’s assertion: human nature is inherently broken and unable to save itself by God’s standards or even accomplish what it wishes by its own standards through its own virtue and willpower.
This film doesn’t come right out and say all of that, but its theme of “warring within oneself” and self-betrayal lands very close to the same target at which the Gospel aims.
I won’t give any spoilers away, but it is not a dismal film. Its story offers hope and redemption in surprising ways as we see each character fight against the real enemy: themselves.
This film is rated PG-13 for a variety of swear words, including infrequent use of the f-word, and some scenes of violence (though not gory violence).