There's a reason that Just Mercy has been released over the Christmas holiday week and it's not because it's a Christmas film. It's because the film, which served as the Closing Night Presentation at the 2019 Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis prior to its wide release this weekend, could have been and should have been an awards season contender.
Just Mercy is a good film that should have been a great film because Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx act the hell out of this material bringing to life a story that never lives up to the masterpiece simmering underneath its surface. Destin Daniel Cretton's third feature film feels predictable when it ought to feel fresh, feels just a tad paint-by-numbers when it ought to catch you by surprise, and it's never quite as captivating as it ought to have been.
Just Mercy is a good film and that shouldn't be ignored because it's a film that deserves to be seen. It's a deeply emotional film, at times devastating to watch, but this was a masterpiece waiting to happen and Cretton simply doesn't deliver the goods mostly owing to a script, based upon Bryan Stevenson's novel of the same name, that simply never captures Stevenson's own emotional resonance and soulful intelligence.
This film will still be an audience pleaser, as it was at Heartland, but it could have been so much more.
If you come away from Just Mercy unmoved, I'd dare say you checked your humanity at the theater door. The film is filled to the brim with maddening racism and injustice and the kinds of life experiences that ought not to happen but are so frequent and so devastating and so life-altering that your entire being should be changed by watching them unfold on the big screen. This is a film, if possible, to be seen with an audience because it's the communal experience that magnifies the power of this unforgettable story.
It was in 1980 when the Harvard educated Stevenson (Jordan) defied the logic of chasing big money and headed down to Alabama to kick-off what would become the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson believed in social justice more than he believed in chasing status or the big bucks. Working alongside a sole employee, played with passionate perfection by Brie Larson, Stevenson begins serving inmates on death row whom he already knows to be often poor, poorly or incompetently represented, and lacking anything resembling a fair trial and fair representation.
He's determined to change that, and so it begins.
Stevenson picks up several cases, most notably that of one Walter McMillan (Foxx), a black man whose case was filled with crater-sized holes and a complete lack of physical evidence. Convicted of the brutal murder of an 18-year-old, McMillan is just waiting to die and has given up on the system doing what's right. Foxx delivers his best performance in several years as McMillan, powerfully capturing his despair yet spark of life and his sense of knowing in his heart, even if no one else but his family knows, that he's done nothing wrong and he will die unjustly. He also doesn't have much faith in Stevenson, whose almost impenetrable bent toward human rights is difficult to buy into if you've never exactly experienced it. Stevenson is pressured to drop the case, of course, but a human being deserves basic human rights and Stevenson, unlike other lawyers before him, isn't one to drop things.
There are moments in Just Mercy when you will weep and there are moments in Just Mercy when you will cheer, possibly even aloud. Cretton packs an awful lot into the film's 136-minute running time, but there's an awful lot that needs to be said.
The leading trio of Jordan, Foxx, and Larson is impeccable here, serving up performances that radiate humanity and everything that you want a film called Just Mercy to radiate. As written, Stevenson is practically too flawless of a human being to the point that he doesn't quite always ring so much as true as more of an inspirational character. That said, it's difficult to imagine anyone but Michael B. Jordan portraying this fiery, passionate, well educated, and compassionate man. Foxx? It's already been said, but this is easily his best work in years and Larson pours herself into Eve Ansley, a young mother whose passion for social justice nearly equals that of Stevenson's.
Just Mercy isn't a flawless film, but it's a film that is impossible to ignore and absolutely should not be ignored. It's possible to say that its flaws may even make it a better film.
A rare studio release that is an intelligent drama for adults that still manages to entertain, Just Mercy may not quite live up to its awards-season release date but it remains one of the most memorable and impactful cinematic releases of 2019.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic