Just Mercy, 2019.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Tim Blake Neslon, Rob Morgan, Darrell Britt-Gibson, and Kirk Bovill
Charting the embryonic stages of civil defence attorney Brian Stevenson’s (Michael B. Jordan) illustrious career, Just Mercy recalls the very first cases he fought in the legal minefield of Alabama, focusing heavily on his campaign to free death-row inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx).
Death-row dramas carry a built-in weight that makes them the perfect material for actors looking to deliver big awards-worthy performances. Just Mercy has the added bonus of being based on the remarkable true-story of Brian Stevenson, a lawyer who has eschewed the bumper pay-cheques, and dedicated his entire career to helping those souls lost within a corrupt justice system, seemingly destined for the electric chair. So with a doozy of a premise, and a trio of incredible performers, why is Just Mercy such an underwhelming experience?
It’s certainly nothing to do with the acting performances, particularly Michael B. Jordan, who gets to shake-off the support of a franchise brand name (Creed, Black Panther) and carry a film for the first time since arriving on the big-screen in Fruitvale Station. Jordan is an actor of immense presence, backing that up here by carrying himself with silent stoicism, and doing his best work during stand-offs in the face of actors given more showy roles. Tim Blake Nelson gets the affectations and ticks, Rafe Spall the pantomime villain beats, but Jordan has mastered the weight of dramatic restraint, and as a result fully-convinces as a rookie lawyer in the face of institutionalised racism.
As the dead-man-walking Foxx masters the quiet performance of a man resigned to his fate. There are no histrionics on display from this cast, no grandstanding, all of which contributes to the resonant humanity that emanates from Just Mercy. When Foxx does come to life, he does so in the economical style of an actor who understands that power isn’t necessarily found in posturing, which is so important in emphasising how silenced and forgotten these men are once they’re swallowed up by the system.
Two of the said men are O’Shea Jackson Jr., who’s fine in a small supporting role, and Rob Morgan, who gets the most emotionally devastating arc as the PTSD afflicted Herb, and is harrowingly good.
It’s fair to say that the execution scenes are a requisitely tough watch, although they’re not explicit, sensibly utilising the power of suggestion over shock-tactics. However, they pale in comparison to the more subtly effective moments of injustice doled out to Stevenson by the local authorities; an unsettling interrogation, and a stop-and-search which echoes from the 80s setting to 2019 America.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is how much Brie Larson is given to do. The Academy Award winner plays Eva Ansley, a woman who has done enough to get her own biopic, but here is often reduced to standing around looking concerned as the events unfold around her.
Just Mercy‘s main problem is that it appears to feel that the power of the story is enough, and while it’s an undeniably fascinating, anger-inducing subject, it’s one of those true stories which might have been better served in documentary form. A fact that’s underlined by some credit-accompanying real-life footage that’ll move you more than much of the preceding two-hours, which at times feels rather pedestrian and creatively uninspired. It could have used some ticking-clock tension or anything other than the bland courtroom dramatics that it employs. It’s just all too genteel, and unfortunately that sometimes tips over into being dull.
Powerfully understated performances, built on the foundations of some incredible real-life events, can’t prevent Just Mercy from being a nuts-and-bolts legal procedural drama that feels as timely as it does dated.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt