There are times when you can tell exactly what a movie is going to be before it even begins. Just Mercy is one of those movies.
The film follows the real journey of lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), who goes to Alabama after graduating from law school to represent those on death row. While there, he meets Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man who is on death row for a crime he clearly did not commit. If that all sounds very familiar, that’s because it is. This is a story that has been told before, without a doubt.
However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Just Mercy has a lot of elements working in its favor. The film’s largest asset is Jamie Foxx, who brings an incredible amount of soul to Walter McMillian. His performance is captivating and painfully human, and it makes him so easy to sympathize with and root for.
Michael B. Jordan does good work as well, though his character isn’t written particularly well. When a character makes the most noble decision at every turn, it becomes harder to view them as anything more than two-dimensional. While Jordan does his very best and brings plenty of his signature charm to the role, his character never truly reads like a real person.
The film also features a routinely scene-stealing turn from Tim Blake Nelson as a convict who has ties to McMillian’s case, as well as a bafflingly underused Brie Larson, who portrays a friend and assistant to Stevenson. Larson’s character is only in a handful of scenes, almost none of which are integral to the plot. It seems like a missed opportunity for a different perspective in a film in which you only see everything from one person’s point of view.
Where this movie really suffers is with predictability. At any given point in this film, you can tell exactly what will happen next in the story. And yet, I still found myself misty-eyed by the film’s end. This can likely be chalked up to director Destin Daniel Cretton’s direction, which is workmanlike but nonetheless solid. There’s nothing flashy here, but he guides the film with a singular sense of purpose to its destination. It doesn’t really matter if you know how it ends, it’s the way that ending is portrayed that makes you feel something. And this ending is stirring for certain.
Overall, this is a pretty standard legal drama with its heart in the right place. Its message of unity and forgiveness is very timely, and this is without a doubt a crowd-pleaser. It also can feel very long at times, especially when the film spends time showing Stevenson working the case or, in one instance, a scene about the awfulness of racism that is so unnecessary it could have been cut out entirely.
In a way, that sums up this film. When it focuses on the people who are on death row and their struggles, Just Mercy really works. The film has a heart of gold but often doesn’t know how to properly utilize it. A fantastic Jamie Foxx performance and rousing finale can’t fully elevate this film to the fully affecting commentary it wants to be. However, if you’re looking for a moving and important story told solidly, then Just Mercy will absolutely resonate with you.
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Written by: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Tim Blake Nelson
Release Date: 24th January 2020