THIS offbeat and wordy film from writer-director Dan Gilroy (sensationalist news-themed thriller Nightcrawler) looks at the challenges and often factory line-esque decisions of the US justice system through the prism of a brilliant, difficult man trying to change it all from the inside.

That man is the intriguingly-named Roman J Israel, Esq (Denzel Washington), a savant-like, self-styled revolutionary criminal defence lawyer at a two-man LA law firm who, by his own admission, lacks the social skills and courtroom-ready confidence usually associated with the profession.

One day his long-time partner is hospitalized because of a heart attack and the family shuts down the law firm that has been running on a deficit for years. Despite being ill-equipped to interact with the wider world, Roman finds he has to come out from behind his desk to tackle a case head-on that could have wide-reaching ramifications for both himself and the industry.

The drama opens with Roman drafting a legal document to have himself disbarred as a lawyer before jumping back three weeks. How exactly will this borderline genius, hindered by his anti-social demeanour but bolstered by his righteous morals and indignation at the way his profession often functions, come to this point? In spite of its narrative shortcomings, it’s a testament primarily to Washington’s powerhouse central performance that we care.

With his frumpy suit, thick glasses, gap in his front teeth and afro straight out of the ‘70s, this is about as far removed from how we’ve seen him before as you could get. He’s also the polar opposite of the sharp-suited and sharp-tongued hotshot law firm owner George Pierce, played with a kind of egocentric ruthlessness by Colin Farrell, ostensibly the film’s antagonist as he constantly gets in Roman’s way.

In the hands of a lesser actor the portrayal of Roman might have come off as a daft Rain Man-with-a-cause impression of what a socially awkward person is supposed to act like. But Washington plays it more than just a cheap collection of idiosyncratic tics and mannerisms, inhabiting the character to the fullest effect to make him a complex human being who makes you believe in every awkward action or turn of phrase. It’s not hard to see why he has been Oscar-nominated for the role. Like its eponymous character, Gilroy’s film is awkward and fidgety, often struggling to get the words out as it attempts to make profound points about an amoral world where people are treated as just numbers in a database.

But it’s also kind of fascinating because of it; in the end that awkwardness befits the state of its titular figure and forms part of its eccentric appeal.

Rating: ★★★