In 2014, screenwriter Dan Gilroy made an impressive directorial debut with the incendiary thriller Nightcrawler, which journeyed inside the twisted mind of an amoral cameraman, who sells footage of fatal traffic accidents to news stations.
Gilroy won numerous plaudits including a deserved Academy Award nomination for his uncompromising screenplay.
In Roman J. Israel, Esq, the gifted writer-director conjures another conflicted and socially awkward (anti)hero, who cheats the system with tragic repercussions for the people around him.
The film is anchored by a scintillating, Oscar-nominated performance from Denzel Washington as the eponymous legal savant, who conceals his genius behind a shambolic appearance, oversized and ill-fitting clothes, large spectacles and an unruly Afro, and a complete lack of social niceties.
“What a freak!” sniggers one handsome and successful young man after he witnesses Roman’s toe-curling awkwardness in full flow.
“You stand on his shoulders,” sharply retorts a female companion, who recognises the noble sacrifices that Roman has made in the name of racial equality.
Washington’s mesmerising portrayal throws into sharp relief the fatal flaws in Gilroy’s uneven script, which struggles to find a narrative thread strong enough to bear the weight of the leading man’s nervous tics.
Roman J. Israel (Washington) is the brilliant mind that lurks in the shadows of a Los Angeles law firm fronted by charismatic champion of the people, William Henry Jackson.
Together, they wage legal war against a corrupt system, running the business into the ground in the process.
Unexpectedly, William suffers a heart attack and his daughter Lynn (Amanda Warren) and secretary Vernita (Lynda Gravatt) confirm the old man is in a permanent vegetative state.
Lynn closes her father’s financially crippled practice and Roman is hired by sharp-suited rival defence attorney, George Pierce (Colin Farrell), to represent clients with slim chances of success.
Thus, Roman finds himself in charge of the fate of a black teenager, Derrell Ellerbee (DeRon Horton), who has been charged with the murder of an Armenian convenience store clerk.
The shooter was actually Derrell’s buddy, Carter Johnson (Amari Cheatom), and Derrell reluctantly agrees to testify in exchange for a reduced plea.
As the case twists in alarming directions, Roman questions his usefulness as a blunted instrument of the law.
“I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful,” he bemoans.
Roman J. Israel, Esq is an intriguing character study in desperate search of a coherent plot.
Washington is fearless, shuffling on the fringes of unlikeability as his recluse alienates friends and colleagues including a pretty activist (Carmen Ejogo).
His tour-de-force theatrics suck most of the oxygen out of the film. Consequently, supporting performances have little chance to breathe.
If writer-director Gilroy penned a satisfying conclusion to the title character’s churning inner turmoil, he evidently left it on the cutting room floor.
Case closed with a deeply unsatisfying whimper.