Just Mercy Review: Conviction Brought Down by Convention

Just Mercy Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy. (Warner Bros.)

Destin Daniel Cretton’s legal drama has its moments of impact and an impressive cast, but it’s far too lopsided to stick the landing.

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What’s more important: ideas or conviction? Surely the latter can’t exist without the former, so does that make both equally important? Let’s assume that they are—but let’s not fall into myopia here. What else is in the picture? What about milieus, about contradictions, about pathos? No matter how loaded the questions may be, they’re necessary. In the context of Destin Daniel Cretton’s newest, however, they don’t appear to be entirely worth having.

Just Mercy is more into speeches—lots of them. They’re up, down, backward, and sideways as if to satisfy four quadrants of basic human decency. Our real-life vessel, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), gives several at key points while his right-hand woman, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), complements them with stingers about doing the right thing no matter what the cost. They’re all entirely valid. They’re also, like the script in question, too thin to get beneath the skin, which is especially curious given this story’s origins.

Since founding the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989, Stevenson has spent decades helping oppressed people find equity across the U.S. One such case is the trial of Walter McMillian, a black man in Monroeville, Alabama who was falsely accused in 1987 of murdering a white woman. Another thing: the accuser was newly appointed Sheriff Tom Tate. The courts hastily sentenced McMillian to death, at which point a then-27-year-old Stevenson intervened. 

But just who was McMillian (played here by Jamie Foxx) as a person, and just how must the legal proceedings unfold for him to regain freedom? Neither is too clear here. Foxx plays him well with an amiability at once wiry and subdued and the script, in one of its several exposition dumps, tells us that he was “well-liked.” Then comes repetition. Stevenson confronts Tate (Rafe Spall); Tate gives racist, strawman rebuttals. Narrative fake-outs pad the runtime, and then it becomes clear: Just Mercy has ideas and conviction. It’s thoroughness that’s lacking.

As it turns out, this version of McMillian is never his own man. The movie opens with what plays like a truncated arc instead, and by rushing to his arrest and imprisonment, it lacks enough context temporally and in terms of location. This town is little more than Stereotypical South USA so much that it could have taken place anywhere else. The farthest the film goes is to reference To Kill a Mockingbird—or rather, to tell us repeatedly that the county is where Lee Harper developed the novel. Get it?

This, of course, is more than a gentle allusion. It’s a predisposition from where the film extrapolates its characters. It’s much more salient in theory than in actuality, though. Cretton & Andrew Lanham (The Glass Castle) attempt to invert the tropes associated with stories about race, but the payoff tapers off. At first, it fully sidesteps the white savior narrative, with Stevenson the driving force and Eva an ally. This focus isn’t consistent, though, as the film’s structure is too impatient despite its 136-minute runtime.

Just Mercy has ideas and conviction. It’s thoroughness that’s lacking.

Cretton & Lanham bounce from character to character and plot point to plot point until they become one and the same. It’s never strictly dehumanizing, but one has to lament the missed opportunities here. In addition to McMillian, there are several other inmates each of who get varying degrees of screen time. Most notable is Vietnam veteran Herbert (Rob Morgan) who, while nearing his death date, unpacks how the years have changed his views on mortality and acceptance. There’s a silence here that the film could have used more of: his scenes don’t just give gravity but border on eschatological.

Yet for each moment of impact comes two pieces that feel incomplete. Other characters, such as the brash-but-narratively-important Ralph (Tim Blake Nelson) err too far towards comic relief, while other actors (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Darrell Britt-Gibson) get virtually nothing to do. Furthermore, these issues muddle other choices instead of just pointing to a general inconsistency. (The way Eva fades into the background throughout the film first feels fitting given that it isn’t her story. The condensed arcs elsewhere, however, muddle such intentions.)

By the time it reaches its several—yes, several—courtroom scenes, Just Mercy is less than the sum of its parts. Brett Pawlak, regular DP for the director, overdoes sepia tones by and large, despite some shots that use low lighting to achieve an almost-monochromatic look. Cretton’s pacing, all the while, is too uneven, falling at the lenience of Nat Sanders’s editing. It’s a protracted picture with good intentions. It’s just too bad those add up to something that feels more like awards bait than a fully realized statement. 

Just Mercy expands nationwide this Friday before playing in a middle school classroom near you in a few years.

Just Mercy Trailer:

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