Just Mercy

It’s tough to make a truly standout courtroom drama. Most of the celebrated ones are from the 1950s and 1960s, like 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Witness for the Prosecution, and Anatomy of a Murder (okay, that last one might not be as well known, but it absolutely should be!), and the surge in the 1990s – largely due to the immense popularity of John Grisham’s early novels and their adaptations – started to die out around the mid-late 2000s, when mid-budget studio films began to grow scarce as CGI-dominated spectacles became the safer bet at the box office. Every now and then audiences will get an enjoyable, yet disposable airport-novel adaptation like The Lincoln Lawyer that taps into a nostalgia for those 90s legal thrillers, but rarely do we see studios take a gamble on an outright courtroom drama that aims for emotional and social relevance like Dead Man Walking or Murder in the First. That is, unless it can make a major swing for the fences during awards season.

And so we have Just Mercy, a film based on the true story of an imprisoned man who was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, and the young, bright-eyed defense attorney who, against all odds, seeks justice in his case. It’s adapted from the book written by the real-life attorney, Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), and follows his involvement with the case from his perspective. After some initial glimpses into his thankless career running a nonprofit law office with assistant Eva Ansley (portrayed by a woefully underutilized Brie Larson), he meets Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) whose case sparks an immediate interest in him. McMillian, an African-American woodsman, was wrongfully convicted for the murder of a white woman in Alabama, based solely on unreliable witness testimony and unethical police coercion. 

The true story itself is gut-wrenching, with blatant racism factoring heavily into his plight, from the initial arrest where the officer gleefully boasted about how he’ll be found guilty, to his immediate imprisonment on Death Row as if he had already been convicted and sentenced, to the Judge overruling the convicting jury’s recommendation of life in prison and condemning him to death. It’s a harrowing, emotional, and infuriating real-life instance of a prejudice-fueled miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately, director Destin Daniel Cretton completely dampens the film’s emotional impact by turning what could be a poignant, timely call to arms into a generic crowd-pleaser with the same typical beats we’ve come to expect. One that aims for cheap sentimentality rather than justified outrage.

Jordan, as always, is one of the film’s true highlights, giving depth and humanity to a character that on paper feels stock and ordinary. His scenes with Foxx are by far the film’s most compelling and moving, even when the showiness of Foxx’s often melodramatic performance feels neatly pre-selected for Oscar reels. The other supporting performances are all over the map. Rob Morgan is excellent as McMillian’s fellow Death Row inmate, clinging to hope despite his impending execution date. Larson is completely miscast, donning a thick, phony southern accent, for a part which woefully ignores her strengths and talent. Tim Blake Nelson is captivating as always, but leans into the theatricality of his heavily mannered character. O’Shea Jackson Jr., who is typically strong, isn’t given much to do. But Jordan is an engrossing screen presence, and he grounds the film’s disparate supporting performances around his down-to-earth and earnest portrayal of a lawyer doing the right thing, rather than a morally righteous larger-than-life social hero.

Eventually, the mild goodwill the film had built up is thrown away in the crux of the third act with a choice that grants a more dynamic character arc to a dull supporting character than Foxx or Jordan. It’s an ugly moment that aims to redeem a character that really doesn’t need it, and it very well may have happened that way in real life, but with the filmmakers taking other liberties to dramatize other events portrayed in the film, there’s no reason such a heavy weight should be given to this one. The performances are enough to bolster the film, but Just Mercy’s ultimate undoing is the prioritization of melodrama to integrity. It’s a glorified, feature-length Oscar reel.

C-

C- Middleburg Review

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