Waaaayyyy back in what we call the Golden Age of Hollywood, it wouldn’t be unusual for studios to only release 50 or 60 films and maybe only a few more than 100 worldwide. Now that number is generally surpassed by the end of the first quarter each year. With that giant upswing in content comes a need to go back to the well again and again and again. Yes, some truly original works pop up every year but they mostly can be counted on one hand. The rest of the quality field is nothing which can be called original, which makes it easy to disregard them as artistic, but that’s not really fair. Shining a particular genre to a brilliant sheen is as much an artistic endeavor as creating a fake twin brother for an adaptation of a book on orchids; some might say it’s what Hollywood does best.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton, who shot the moon of original, arty fair with Short Term 12 makes a play for the ‘other’ kind of successful drama in Just Mercy, the ‘based on a true story’ account of Walter McMillan’s years-long fight against a conviction for a murder he didn’t commit and the corrupt system which convicted him.
A poor handyman just trying to make his way for himself and his family in 1980s Alabama, McMillian (Jamie Foxx) was arrested for the murder of a local white woman and quickly convicted despite a lack of any physical evidence tying him to the crime and his own protestations of innocence. Sent to death row, McMillan’s case looked hopeless until it was taken up by Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard educated lawyer who passed on a career of ease and luxury to focus on finding justice for the underprivileged and wrongly convicted. Unwanted by the community (except for his unflappable partner Eva), lacking in resources but filled to the brim with resolve, Stevenson digs into the bad blood and racism underlining McMillian’s arrest and conviction and somehow finding hope underneath it all.
There’s a lot to be knocked about Just Mercy, not least the fact that it has been made many times before; not only is its ending never in doubt but many of the plot beats leading up to the conclusion can be rattled sight unseen. It’s like a medical drama or a new James Bond film; some things it just seems like you have to do. That also includes a certain level of preachiness as all involved seem to want to take the moment to lay out all they see wrong with criminal justice in the United States and make sure we’re aware of it. It makes Just Mercy very didactic which, combined with its heavy lean on the classic tropes of the courtroom drama, could have relegated it to just another Murder in the First or similar. But Cretton’s understated focus on procedural elements and Jordan’s similar performance give Just Mercy the patina of reality it needs to stand above many of its compatriots.
It’s a choice which might turn off the casual viewer looking for familiar legal melodrama. [Thrill to Michael B. Jordan flipping through papers! Jump out of your seat at a motion being filed! Believe that listening to a lot of deposition audio takes hours and hours and hours]. But it’s a choice which pays long-term dividends. The deeper Cretton and Co. delve into the weeds, the more realistic the events and the stakes become. Just Mercy bypasses normal soap opera tactics to create empathy through verisimilitude, particularly through Jordan’s performance. Some of that is by necessity — Cretton has decided on a barebones aesthetic, which ties in to his thematic movements — but it works. Jordan is fully committed to the reality of Stevenson from his frustrations over the walls set in front of him to his desire to do what he has said he will do. The only weakness comes from Foxx, who is both the front of Just Mercy’s most cliché moments and the one actor who acts as if he is in one of those films. It’s over the top and strangely at odds with the low-key realism Jordan and Larson are going for, creating a strained dynamic which throws everyone out of their scenes.
Considering what Cretton is working against, his achievement here is double impressive. It has a severe ceiling it continually bumps its head into — the stock elements of this kind of film — which keeps it earth bound. But within that low orbit there are still wonders to be seen.
Just Mercy Review Score: 7.5/10
Just Mercy opens in theaters on Friday, January 10th and is rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets. You can view all our coverage on the movie by clicking here.