- 13 Feb 18
Promising exploration of race undone by dodgy screenplay.
Dan Gilroy’s last film was Nightcrawler, a thriller centred on Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom, a manic and ambitious cameraman whose lack of empathy allowed him to thrive. The lead in Gilroy’s latest screenplay, Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington), sits at the opposite end of the moral spectrum. A lawyer and former activist for civil rights, Roman has spent decades making a pittance protecting underprivileged defendants of colour from the prison industrial complex.
An isolated eccentric, Roman’s comforting routines are disrupted when his law partner dies, and he finds himself unemployed. Roman’s first-act struggle to find work is powerful and layered. Incredibly skilled yet socially awkward, Roman’s righteousness and dated methods of political activism rub judges and employers up the wrong way. To see such a proud and idealistic man repeatedly rebuffed for having too much integrity is heartbreaking, and as ever, Washington plays Roman’s defeat beautifully. Stammering and weeping while fighting for his beliefs, the actor captures the emotional labour borne by everyone who has had to fight to convince the world that they deserve a place in it.
Under the weight of this defeat and desperation, Roman must decide whether to keep fighting, perhaps fruitlessly, or become complicit in the system he has railed against. There are complex questions here, but Gilroy soon decides that a character study around principles and institutionalised racism won’t sell tickets, and shoves a half-baked thriller side-plot into his screenplay. For good measure, two frustratingly underwritten characters – Colin Farrell’s hotshot lawyer and Carmen Ejogo’s non-profit leader – are also shoehorned into the action. The bloated, unfocused and ludicrously U-turning script drags, and despite the lengthy running time, the story fails to give any character a satisfying arc.