A star-studded, politically relevant courtroom drama based on a true story released right in the middle of awards season is typically the kind of film Oscar voters and general audiences eat up.
So why is no one going to see “Just Mercy,” the latest film from indie darling director Destin Daniel Cretton starring a pair of Academy Award winners and led by “Black Panther” standout Michael B. Jordan?
There’s nothing wrong with the film. It’s a perfectly adequate, well-crafted feature that tells a simple story in poignant, heartfelt ways.
“Just Mercy” just happens to be about seven years too late.
The film follows the beginnings of the Equal Rights Institute, a non-profit law firm started by Harvard-educated African American lawyer Bryan Stevenson who moves to the heart of Alabama to counsel disenfranchised and wrongly condemned death row inmates on their final appeals.
While encompassing the first years of the institute in general, the film most closely follows the case of Walter McMillian, wrongly convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old woman in spite of significant evidence ignored during his racially charged trial.
Despite being based on Stevenson’s autobiography of the same name, “Just Mercy” serves more as an acting tour de force for a trio of talented character actors, most notably Oscar winner Jamie Foxx delivering his best performance in over five years as McMillian.
Foxx brings an earnest heart to the role that been hardened not by the prison that’s stolen his life from him, but by an ever-increasing distrust of a justice system that’s failed him time and again.
His chemistry opposite Michael B. Jordan’s steady, stoic turn as Stevenson is consistently solid throughout the film, but what sets Foxx apart in “Just Mercy” is the emotional bonds his McMillian is able to form beyond walls with two adjacent death row inmates played by Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson, Jr.
Unable to see or feel the others’ presence, the three men instantly develop an emotional rapport and support that feels earned in spite of the extraordinary circumstances around them and help provide the film’s most heart-wrenching moment at the end of the second act following the decision of one inmate’s final appeal.
In the least heralded great performance of 2019, Morgan blows audiences away with a remorseful passion mixed with bewilderment and confusion that will leave viewers stunned and awe-struck.
Similarly, Tim Blake Nelson plays a pivotal role as a fellow inmate accusing McMillian of the murder whose confrontations with Stevenson feel comically caricature at first glance but becomes revelatory as the film catapults its way through the courtroom stage.
“Just Mercy” fails to make the most of its biggest box office draws as Jordan is a serviceable protagonist through which to follow the story, but he never truly makes much of a mark on the film as Stevenson. Likewise, Oscar winning actress Brie Larson lends her credibility and star power to her third collaboration with Cretton after “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle,” but is given almost nothing to do in a small role as Stevenson’s aide.
The fatal flaw within “Just Mercy” is that the scope of the film exceeds the Stevenson-McMillian relationship far too much for a tight narrative structure, but doesn’t expand the world wide enough to justify a lengthy 137-minute running time. While the subject matter is more than worthy of chronicling, Cretton sacrifices a relatively thin plotline for character moments better suited for television miniseries.
Cretton doesn’t force the action visually in any special way, leaving the audience to rely on the ensemble cast’s largely terrific performances to prop up the film as a whole. The cinematography doesn’t get in the way and the musical score swells at all the expected moments, but the whole project technically reminds of an extended television crime procedural rather than a weighty, cinematic courtroom drama.
“Just Mercy” will have a stronger run on streaming platform and home video rather than on the big screen as Warner Brothers rightly focuses their attention on larger projects like “Joker” and “Richard Jewell.”
A competently made, brilliantly acted drama, “Just Mercy” is worth taking a chance on later this year when the film is made available for private home viewing.