With his directorial debut Nightcrawler—street hustler-turned-freelance cameraman roams the L.A. nightscape for ‘on the crime scene’ footage—Tony Gilroy partnered a hollow-eyed character study with an adrenalized 1970s antihero drama.
In his intriguing but far less successful follow-up, Roman J. Israel, Esq., Gilroy places a ‘70s throwback at the heart of an L.A. law drama.
The title character (Denzel Washington), who came of activist age when the words and deeds of Angela Davis and Martin Luther King were still firing up front-line protests, is a shuffling savant behind the scenes. When his partner—their firm’s in-court presence—suffers a career-ending heart attack, Roman, nowhere to turn, falls in with George Pierce (Colin Farrell), head honcho at his own big, super-slick firm. Beaten-down and fed-up, our favourite legal misfit decides to shuck off his principles and start looking out for himself.
Following Roman’s lead, the story has its curious tics and twitches—it’s a bit ragged yet hard to predict where it’ll shuffle to next.
Gilroy, with his previous collaborators, cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor Joe Gilroy, keeps us so attuned to Roman’s different wavelength that his anxiety crackles up, dial-nudge by dial-nudge, until he turns on his old self. It’s then that his success marks and makes the tragedy.
But, strung together, the moments here make for too much convenience and an overdependence on a quirky outcast’s best intentions. George’s backing of Roman—especially given what he gets up to in the timeline’s overstuffed three weeks—never quite makes sense (like some of Roman’s gnomic lines), because his driving-force is his old law prof, Roman’s stricken partner, whom we never do see. One of those streetside encounters even seems, in retrospect, a plot-contrivance meant to make a young activist (Carmen Ejogo) plausibly look up to him. By the end, when Roman becomes a martyr for his great cause (a legal challenge of the entire system’s reliance on plea bargaining), he’s also that most Hollywood of heroes—the extraordinary maverick.