SFIFF Review: Just Mercy

Destin Daniel Cretton’s Death Row Legal Drama is Sturdy and not Much Else

The difference solid and stolid is a thin line, and in the world of prestige filmmaking it’s a line that is incredibly hard walk. Many movies want to be restrained and respectful while tackling major or important issues, but those reserved impulses ultimately can weaken a film. Sucking the life and texture out of a project that should be full of depth and humanity.

Just Mercy is a movie that tries to balance that line, and only moderately succeeds because of it. It’s a film that so badly wants to be thoughtful and respectful about the truly serious subject matter that it covers that never feels fully alive. Director Destin Daniel Cretton has shown a knack for capturing the mundane tragedies of people on the edges of society with his debut feature Short Term 12. But where that film was filled with surprising specificity and unique experience, Just Mercy is shorn to the barest bones of the legal procedural.

Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) is recent Harvard grad who goes down to Alabama to work with death row inmates, many of which have not be given proper counsel though their time in the justice system. While there he gets wrapped into the case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx) a man railroaded through the legal process based on the testimony of a single white man. Along the way Stevenson is helped by local do gooder Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) and locks horns with the district attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall).

From this set up one can almost anticipate every moment of the movie. Every uncovered injustice, shocking setback, and thrilling triumph, each movement scored with moving monologues about race and justice from almost every member of the cast. Cretton is unable to latch onto anything specific in a world that is built on infuriating detail. The solemn tone, only peppered with tossed off quips to keep things from sinking int pure darkness, does nothing to help. In the end it feels incredibly detached from itself and the narrative it’s telling, a reporting project when it should be a story.

The biggest indicator of this issue is Jordan’s character and performance. Jordan is one of our best onscreen presences. Effortlessly charismatic and compelling in both physical and emotional acts, and Just Mercy plays to none of those strengths. Instead he’s asked to be the respectable good lawyer of a history book. Not a man of passions and feelings, but a cipher for justice and the righting of wrongs. Every moment where the movie tries to connect to the work he’s doing beyond the bog standard, “it’s the right thing to do” feels tacky and contrived. He played church music, he saw his grandfather wrongly murdered, and he knows the deep rooted problems of racism in America.

These traits remain traits and never coalesce into anything other than a man who delivers speeches. Foxx fairs much better with the material he’s given, allowed to express a greater range of emotions without being hemmed in by the taciturn requirements placed on Jordan’s shoulders. He’s the only person that emerges as more than a moral chess piece that Cretton can move around the board.

Even though the movie plays everything incredibly safe, it’s not without some power. The death penalty is one of the most heinous parts of America’s justice system, and the way it destroys lives is effectively deployed through out the picture. With examples of it used as leverage to coerce confession, or as the maddening end point for a man who had mental health problems and needed treatment instead of the electric chair. But the overriding familiarity of the structure and tone of Just Mercy never lets the righteousness exceed a few well timed speeches and dramatic reversals in court. For such a hot button topic the movie plays it way too cool.

Odds and Ends

  • Awards watch: this might go to the dustbin of prestige history if not for Foxx, who livens up the material enough to stand out. Unfortunately the actor races are incredibly stiff this year and it’ll interesting to see if he can fight out with titans like Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt.
  • One of the more annoying tics of the movie is to constantly point out that the setting was the inspiration of To Kill a Mocking Bird and then ironically juxtaposing that book’s historical significance with current day tragedies. We get it, America is still incredibly racist, don’t need to sign post it that much when we have the thrust of the narrative to do so.