Review by Sean Boelman
Just Mercy, the newest film from filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle), is an inspirational legal drama based on the true story of attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson. Even though it ultimately feels a bit too heavy-handed at times, the story is moving and the cast is excellent, allowing the movie to be very memorable.
The film tells the story of Stevenson, an attorney who formed a foundation trying to free wrongly-convicted prisoners who have been sentenced to death. This true story lends itself to a riveting legal drama arc, and while it does become a bit too conventional at times, this is very much an old-school crowd-pleaser. An air of familiarity radiates throughout this tale, but it is successful nonetheless.
It is on a thematic level that the movie needed some additional development. Of course, there is the main commentary on justice and truth, and that is effective, if on-the-nose. However, the subplots in the film aren’t explored with enough depth to warrant their inclusion. Stories about Stevenson’s other clients feel like afterthoughts, but even more disappointing is the fact that the movie doesn’t do justice to the elements of racism that are obvious in the narrative.
The character development in the film as a whole is solid, as the protagonist and his main client are both very well-written and sympathetic characters, but a lot of the supporting characters provide little more than background noise. It’s a shame that these characters weren’t fleshed out with a bit more detail, because the strongest and most impactful sequences of the movie feature characters outside of the main duo.
In many parts, the film lands on an emotional level because it appeals to the basic humanity of the viewer. It’s hard not to feel pity for someone in the situation of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan, who is convicted of a crime he did not commit. Granted, the movie does lean a bit too heavily on the tear-jerking moments at times, almost to the point of feeling saccharine, but Cretton manages to tread on that line without ever crossing it.
As a whole, the ensemble of the film is quite talented, although Jamie Foxx (as McMillan) is the absolute standout of the cast. Michael B. Jordan gives a solid turn as the lawyer, Brie Larson is enjoyable if underwhelming as his business partner, and Rafe Spall gives a formidable show as the DA fighting against the heroes, but it is Foxx’s inspired performance that works the best. The empathy and humanity he brings to the character is shocking, making this his finest work since Ray.
Visually, the movie could have been a bit more ambitious than it is, but the editing and cinematography are sufficient to build suspense in the courtroom scenes. The most frustrating thing about the film’s execution is that the periodization is weak. Although some of the work with the props and costuming is solid, the time in which the movie is set is not established clearly enough by the visuals.
While it is obviously awards bait, Just Mercy is nonetheless a mostly effective and inspiring legal drama thanks to great performances from its cast. Destin Daniel Cretton could have done a bit more to give this film a more stylish edge, but it will please audiences as is just fine.
Just Mercy is now playing in theaters.