Denzel Washington delivers a performance for the ages in "Roman J. Israel, Esq.," an appealing if ultimately frustrating urban thriller by Dan Gilroy. Three years ago, Gilroy made an impressive directorial debut with "Nightcrawler," a moody evisceration of Los Angeles's parasitic tabloid media culture. Here, he once again dives into unfamiliar regions of his city — in this case, its rapidly gentrifying downtown — to create a backdrop for his indelible title character, a progressive criminal defense attorney at war with his most cherished ideals.
That battle is already well underway in "Roman J. Israel, Esq.'s" opening sequence, during which we see type appear on a blank computer screen, with Israel's voice repeating what we're reading: a legal brief against himself, for breaking the laws not only of the state of California but also of humanity in general. The movie then shifts to three weeks earlier, when the seeds of Israel's discontent are sown and his personal slide into the dark side begins.
That journey is full of incident, digression and sometimes surprising reversals, as Israel is forced to deal with a world he's held at bay for 40 years. With his shapeless Afro, aviator glasses and frumpy suits, Israel is a throwback, as his electric typewriter and posters of Bayard Rustin and Angela Davis attest. Portrayed by Washington in a physical performance that transforms his face and body into an unrecognizable collection of ungainly gestures and nerdy, antisocial tics, Israel is clearly on the autism spectrum, a "savant," as one colleague calls him, best suited to researching and filing briefs rather than arguing in court. He's analog in a digital world, a social-justice warrior whose lifelong wish for mass action and revolutionary change feels retrograde but also, when he ventures into present-day life, oddly of the moment.
When circumstances conspire to put Israel front and center, he begins a period of soul-searching that will introduce him to an idealistic civil rights activist named Maya (Carmen Ejogo) and a slick criminal lawyer named George (Colin Farrell). One of the great strengths of "Roman J. Israel, Esq." is that no one is any one thing: Farrell's George is a particularly fascinating foil for Israel's awkward but incisive brilliance ("You're a low-flying bee," Israel says to George, whose admittedly stinging, sharp-eyed ambition eventually gives way to more complex motivations and inner drives.)
At one point, a client asks Israel what the "Esq." stands for; he tells her it's something "slightly above gentleman, but below knight." As he pursues his chivalric quest for justice, he becomes a poignant, enormously sympathetic figure, even when he completely blows a meeting with young activists at Maya's nonprofit group. (When he chastises men in the audience for not giving up their seats to women, he is accused of using language that's "gendered and patronizing.") Thanks to Gilroy's rich, densely layered writing and Washington's masterful characterization, this is a figure we'll gladly follow anywhere — even when his story doglegs into side trips and subplots that feel forced, overworked and dangerously close to patronizing territory.
Part character study, part legal thriller and part morality tale about means manifesting their own ends, "Roman J. Israel, Esq." winds up being just as eccentric and unpredictable as its doggedly honorable, and far from perfect, leading man. Gilroy sets up such a convincing atmosphere (the movie features a terrific score by James Newton Howard, which meshes nicely with one of the tastiest soundtracks of the season), and builds such solidarity with a character imbued with the kind of political conscience we rarely see on-screen, that viewers can't help but be disappointed with where he takes them. The conclusion of "Roman J. Israel, Esq." may be foregone in terms of philosophical consistency, but in no way can it be described as satisfying. Still, viewers will be glad to spend time with one of Washington's finest screen creations, if only to imagine what a modern-day knight in slightly tarnished armor might look like.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains coarse language and some violence. 122 minutes.