(Video On-Demand, February 2018) I’ve heard Roman J. Israel, Esq. discussed as a fascinating character study wrapped in an underwhelming story, and that certainly has some merit as a description. The best thing about the film is Roman J. Israel, Esq. as played by the ever-capable Denzel Washington, a genius-level lawyer with substantial social interaction problems. Comfortable in his role as the rarely seen brainy half of a two-man small legal outfit, Israel starts having problems once his partner dies, leaving him to fend off in a hostile environment. Getting hired is difficult enough that he’s got to accept a few favours, but staying employed is even more difficult when his personality clashes with just about everyone in a top legal firm. Issues of romance, class, crime and legal ethics come to complicate this already challenging situation, but even with all its flourishes (and occasional action sequences), Roman J. Israel, Esq. seems to deflate as it nears a conclusion. I suspect that the film would have been more successful with a more upbeat ending. In the meantime, we are free to admire Washington’s portrayal, or its nuanced look at the life of an idealistic lawyer. Both Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo continue their streak of good supporting performances. Writer/director Dan Gilroy doesn’t meet the considerable expectations set by his debut feature Nightcrawler, but his follow-up remains a watchable effort and a decent showcase for Washington.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) The concept of the anti-hero is retooled with vigour in Nightcrawler, thanks to a terrific collaboration between writer/director Dan Gilroy and another exceptional performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. Taking place in modern Los Angeles (now illuminated at night by bright-white LED streetlamps) where competing news stations are literally out for blood, Nightcrawler is first and foremost the character study of a modern sociopath, one whose ambition is fueled by personal-growth Internet sites, a complete lack of morals and a world that gleefully applauds the result of his efforts. Gyllenhaal is phenomenal in the lead hustler role, portraying a deeply wrong character with almost-complete detachment: the film’s best scene is a “simple” dinner date in which a human relationships is dissected to its most self-interested axioms. Otherwise, much of the film is spent in the streets of Los Angeles at night, chasing accidents and selling video footage to the highest bidder. It’s a nightmarish but well-executed film, Gilroy showing talent at his first directorial effort –and showcasing his wife Renee Russo in one of the best roles she’s had in years. There’s quite a bit of depth in the way Nightcrawler also engages with issues of degenerate capitalism, social voyeurism and media fearmongering. It’s quite a film, but also quite an experience in how it refuses to see things from outside its lead character’s perspective. Don’t be surprised if you want to shower after watching it.