by Philip Price
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx & Brie Larson
Runtime: 2 hours & 16 minutes
The third film from director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12,” “The Glass Castle”) stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson in the true story of a Harvard-educated lawyer named Bryan Stevenson (based on a book written by the actual Stevenson) who goes to Alabama in the late eighties to defend the disenfranchised and wrongly condemned including Foxx's Walter McMillian, a man sentenced to death despite evidence proving his innocence.
Every single word in that description would lead one to believe “Just Mercy” is an inevitably powerful film that is both timely and timeless as it touches on the indifference to inequality and justice in our society as its been fated to have been constructed; a world with a “justice deficient” as Stevenson would describe it, so why then...does everything about “Just Mercy” feel as formulaic as the old gospel hymns referenced within it? There's no taking away that this is a good movie, but there's no denying it goes down exactly as you expect it to also. That isn't to say the story isn't important or to criticize the story the film is telling, but more it is a recognition that Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham (“The Shack”) might have done more to execute this in a fashion not so routine; to find a way of conveying the story in unexpected ways rather than resting on the fact the true story is compelling enough on its own.
It is because the story of McMillian, Stevenson and their eventual friendship is so compelling on its own that saves the film though, as their story outlines the deeply-rooted issues of injustice through the inherent nature of their environment and the type of people it is capable of turning out. I would say it seems crazy that as recently as the early nineties there were still people who could sleep at night knowing they'd taken a man's life away simply to save face in their own job and further, knowingly allow an actual murderer to continue to run free, but we all know the kind of 2019 we're living in. So, while the story of McMillian and Stevenson is meant to exemplify why we should all seek real, absolute justice and in that quest come to understand that people can be more than the crime they commit and that people who have fallen down still deserve basic rights, the straight-up depiction of this story can only carry “Just Mercy” so far while the kernels of what might have lent to a more personal, harrowing and touching experience are very clearly present and only needed to be tapped into more precisely by both the screenplay and the director.
Does that make “Just Mercy” a bad film? Not by any stretch. This is a strong, sturdy courtroom drama in some sense though it's not fully devoted to that genre while at other times can be something of a smaller, more focused character piece. Much to my surprise, the performances are probably the least satisfying thing about the film. They are serviceable and do well to convey the necessary plot points, but Jordan with all his appeal and charm can't help but to feel a little out of his depth here and maybe that's intentional, maybe that's to reinforce how Stevenson actually felt at the beginning of this crusade, but it comes across as more of an ineptitude in terms of embodying the character than it does a choice for the character. Larson and O'Shea Jackson Jr. have very little to do unfortunately, though Jackson's lack of development is more understandable than Larson's who is playing a legit supporting player while Rafe Spall continues in his series of performances where he plays the vindictive little guy out for blood. That said, the performance that naturally stands out is Foxx who, as McMillian, chooses to believe he was put in this position to help his fellow inmates on death row rather than be angry every moment of every day about the injustice his life has encountered. Foxx is the only real, flashed out person in the film alongside Rob Morgan’s tragic turn as fellow death row inmate Herbert Richardson. In many ways this lack of attention on the performances helps to reinforce the facts of the story as they are what transcend all the lights and hoopla heaped upon the film for what might otherwise be a fleeting awards season. The focus on the facts of the story instead lend credence to the idea “Just Mercy” might actually serve to be inspiring.
And much like Jordan’s performance, Cretton’s direction-while more or less doing its job-feels a little out of its depth in that there is no flash to the proceedings. It’s important to note that adding “flash” doesn’t necessarily have to mean overtly exaggerated camera tricks, distinct visual styles or showy performances, but more it doesn’t have any flash in that it feels as straightforward as can be about an issue that has many layers and caveats that certain sections of the audience won’t understand or won’t be in tune with because they’ve been privileged enough to have never experienced such things. It might be that Cretton himself wasn’t aware enough to tap into such facets, but it could also be intentional in that Cretton is really just trying to send a message and ensure the story’s powerful message is heard loud and clear, but this doesn’t so much feel like the choice of the filmmaker as it does a consequence of his own lack of skill and insight on the subject. Again, it’s not that all of this culminates to result in a bad movie, but maybe not as good of a movie as this story and this struggle deserve.