Just Mercy Review: A Necessary Legal Drama With Electric Performances

With his new film Just Mercy, director Destin Daniel Cretton proves once again that his interest as a visual storyteller comes from the harrowing tales of his characters’ lives. It’s a trend that runs throughout his filmography, since most are based on real people with their stories rooted in systemic injustices. There’s no need for explosions or action set pieces when the drama of reality and what these people have been through is just as engaging. Just Mercy sets up and delivers a real world with real problems in a manner that can best be described as subtle. Though the larger implications of the narrative are life-altering, the way the world is presented on screen and how its characters navigate it is profound in its small movements.

In the film, Michael B. Jordan plays real-life defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, one of the minds behind the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that provides legal services for prisoners that were given poor representation or were wrongly convicted. Jordan brings a grounded reality to his depiction, never striving for an operatic moment where he brings down the legal system and its many prejudices in a flashy, Oscar-reel moment, a prime example of the film's subtlety. This is the story of Bryan, fresh out of law school and eager to change the world, but still finding his footing. As a result, he realizes he has more to learn about how “the system” operates (especially in rural places). While there he discovers Walter McMillian, brought to life through another award-worthy performance by Jamie Foxx, a man convicted of murdering a white woman based on very shaky testimony. The film delivers the details of the case quick and fast, making the conviction so maddening, and thus getting us hooked into the mission. As the film reveals, this sort of injustice happens with frequency.

As Stevenson finds himself in the weeds of his work he quickly realizes that not everything he's been told in a book or in a classroom can prepare him for what really happens in a courtroom. To help, he joins up with Brie Larson’s Eva Ansley who helps him navigate the swamp of injustice. Larson does a good enough job for the part, but the script seldom gives her character much to do beyond deliver legal exposition and give Stevenson a root in southern culture that frankly boils down to “not all white people.” It’s a choice by the filmmakers that, again, works in subtle fashion, but when her scenes are boiled down to their essence, they offer almost nothing that advances the momentum of the narrative. It’s one of the major letdowns of the entire experience.

Where Jordan really succeeds in the role is by never making himself larger than life. Bryan Stevenson is real and, though Jordan has played superheroes and boxing stars, he never makes his character out to be something more than what he is: a man that just wants to help. His moments in court (expected as much in such a legal drama) feel sincere and smart, only going for the Earth-shattering beat when he needs to. Foxx paves a similar path, bringing a subdued pathos that brings to life a man beaten down by the system. It’s hard to even imagine the type of destruction these circumstances can bring on someone, but Foxx manages to humanize McMillian and make his story that much more soul-crushing.

Though Jordan and Foxx are the highlights of the movie, it would be disingenuous to not point out some of the supporting roles that could be overlooked. Rob Morgan delivers a quiet and contained look at a man doomed to death row who Stevenson can’t help, while Tim Blake Nelson once again embodies a quirky southern weirdo, providing both levity the story needs and the relief of its legal tensions. Also worth noting that English actor Rafe Spall delivers one of the best southern accents I’ve heard on screen.

One of the best things about Just Mercy is how its story is built on a foundation where the details aren’t thrown in your face. Characters flaunt the existence of the “To Kill A Mockingbird” museum to Jordan with frequency, their words implying that its existence means racial injustice can’t exist here. Like the larger frame of the movie, this harsh truth is entrenched in reality, and the way it and other instances are weaved into Just Mercy gives it a solid base to deliver its enthralling, if by the numbers, story.

Just Mercy puts its entire thesis into perspective in a succinct way. Prejudice and injustice are an easy tool used by the system, and the fight to upturn them is long, difficult, but in the end, necessary and worthwhile.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Just Mercy is in theaters now.