Heavy-handed, but appropriately heavy going, Destin Daniel Cretton’s third feature is a stark stylistic contrast to his sensationally delicate debut, Short Term 12 – perhaps one of the finest films of the 21st century. Seven years ago, he introduced the world to just how potent a talent Brie Larson can be, and she’s yet to leave his side having also featured in Cretton’s second feature, 2017’s The Glass Castle, winning an Oscar somewhere in between. Just Mercy certainly has more in common with the latter, presenting itself with seemingly as much major studio sheen as possible. It’s an interesting creative choice that pays off marginally more regularly than it is to the immersion’s detriment. Check out the official trailer below:
At the story’s centre, recent Harvard law graduate Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) is compelled to immediately head south from his mid-Atlantic comforts to pursue selfless justice for inmates on Death Row whose cases are crying out for re-examination. He establishes the Equal Justice Initiative with the assistance of passionate Operations Director, Eva (Brie Larson), and slowly begins to sift through case files until he starts to uncover inconsistencies, mistruths and ultimately, injustices. In a similar small-community vein to so many Netflix true-crime docs recently, it becomes frustratingly apparent, yet again, that the priority of the District Attorney and Sheriff’s offices is ensuring that they are seen to be delivering at least some form of justice in the eyes of their constituents. Best case scenario – physical evidence allows them to put the right guy away. And if that fails, they pin it to a blue-collar black man and call it a victory.
In the case of Just Mercy, the fall guy is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) who absurdly awaits execution based on the debatable testimony of only one person – a career criminal in Ralph Myers played to astute levels of perfection by Tim Blake Nelson. McMillian, to counter, is characterised respectfully, and powerfully by Foxx, and yet you can’t help but think that he could have delivered this performance in his sleep. The same thoughts surround Larson’s crimp-haired (so you know it’s the early 90s) Eva, who is woefully miscast. It’s not even Larson’s fault. She’s just too recognisable at this point in time to ever stand a chance at convincing as supporting character in this type of film, and her presence is genuinely distracting. This is especially so when paired with the bombastic production value attributed to what is very much a compact narrative built around two characters – hers not being one of them.
Were Just Mercy allowed the handheld, indie sensibilities on which Cretton has previously thrived, perhaps it would all cut that little bit deeper. Where it does evoke and stimulate, it does to stunning effect, namely in a prolonged sequence whereby Bryan witnesses his first state execution. The gravity of the moment is delivered with both intensity and sensitivity in equal measure and serves as the film’s ultimate turning point. By the time we arrive in the courtroom with all major players present though, we are around 100 minutes in and can already expect how this is all going to pan out for McMillian. We’ve had all the facts for the last half an hour, and a film this glossy was never going to end with your main character in the electric chair. As Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan delivers rousing opening and closing statements that are purposely and bravely frank to cap off a performance already beautifully grounded in quiet resolve, but by the time verdicts are eventually delivered, it all feels like a foregone conclusion.
Were it not for yet another commanding central performance from Jordan, Cretton’s film may well have floundered under the weight of the story it seeks to tell. That is to say, part of a bigger story that is all too timeless and all too common of the American judicial system – a tragic fact solely to blame when things begin to feel formulaic. That it does is probably the harshest truth of all, and attributable to the broken society on show rather than the filmmakers who, all told, do well to even scratch the surface.
Just Mercy premieres on HBO on Saturday, September 26th at 8PM EST.