Dan Gilroy’s 2014 debut ‘Nightcrawler’ was a bold and bloody portrayal of modern-day media and consumer culture, exploring the shocking dangers of L.A crime journalism. It struck a chord with critics and audiences alike, making it one of the most memorable films of the whole year. It’s surprising, then, to leap four years ahead only to find that Gilroy’s second film, ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’, fails to reach the same heights, or even fit into the same league as ‘Nightcrawler’. Luckily, however, Washington’s colourful performance brings excitement to an otherwise boring story.
In what may seem like an average courtroom drama, Gilroy instead presents a unique portrait for the driven and idealistic defense attorney, Roman J. Israel, Esq., contrasting the old with the new through much of what makes up his character: large wire glasses, poofy hair, an insecure posture, and a toothy smile complimented by quirky headphones. It’s the kind of role that begged for someone good, and, surely enough, there was Denzel Washington. He carries the whole story on his shoulders, imbuing even the worst of scenes with personality and excitement. For example, Roman’s small tendencies are explosive and unique, revealing themselves only when they are repressed or explored. It brings nuance to Elswit’s unusually dull photography and allows Washington to transform the small-time lawyer into a symbol of social justice.
Even with such noble intentions, Gilroy fails to keep the flame alive in what feels like the least passionate ode 60’s activism there could be. It lacks the urgency required to establish a strong sense of importance, undermining its crucial message of speaking truth-to-power. For example, the subplot in which Roman meets a civil-rights activist named Maya, feels woefully underdeveloped and cheesy, playing second fiddle to an elaborate corporate scheme that loses control of itself as soon as it begins. When, in fact, it should be the other way around. It’s for this reason that Gilroy’s character-driven story of justice quickly transforms into a plot-driven adventure that feels too forgettable and slow to be considered for the 2018 Oscars.
It would almost be reasonable to pan it off as ‘Oscar bait’, but it might just be worse than that. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is among the long list of films that come out of every year that doesn’t do anything particularly impressive, but they don’t reek of production issues or problems either. It just exists because it can. And there’s nothing worse than a movie being a movie if it doesn’t have to be one.
Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo.