Movies like Just Mercy can be tricky to judge. Based on the true story of lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) — as he tries to overturn the death sentence conviction of the wrongly accused Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) – it’s undeniably a film of immense power and truly harrowing moments. Heartbreaking and infuriating in equal parts, it’s difficult not to become entirely emotionally invested in the horrific injustice of it all – tracking Stevenson’s momentous uphill battle against a broken, racist justice system. On the other hand, stories like this generally remain powerful regardless of the way that they’re told. Just Mercy certainly leaves the intended lasting feelings of anger and sadness at these systems, but it also realizes these feelings inside the most standard and awards-bait framework possible.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton may seem like an appropriate choice to direct a story like this, given the boundless empathy he displayed in his debut Short Term 12, but he realizes this story in a distinctly televisual manner – his compositions are frequently flat and dull at best. That’s not to suggest that this story should be made more glamorous, but Cretton’s satisfaction with allowing it to be told in such a basic manner creates the frustrating feeling that it never quite reaches the incendiary heights that it should be hitting. While it’s obviously important that stories like this continue to be told regardless of their visual aesthetic, it shouldn’t be out of the question to expect them to be made a little more cinematic. Just last year, If Beale Street Could Talk highlighted the gorgeously poetic manner that these stories could be told in without losing the intensity of our emotional response. In contrast, Just Mercy feels like it’s content being merely functional.
It’s made even more frustrating by the incredible cast of performers that Cretton has assembled — all so good that they’re just aching for the better version of this film. Jordan continues to prove himself one of our most soulful actors, painfully realizing the near-impossible task Stevenson has set himself in all of the outrage and despair that it leads to. Brie Larson is typically reliable in a Holly Hunter-channeling supporting performance as Stevenson’s co-worker Eva Ansley, though she and her character end up feeling fairly under-served by the film — given little interiority and used mostly for the expositional back-and-forth. It’s often easy to forget just how incredible a performer Jamie Foxx is, and here he delivers his best work in years. It’s a powerhouse supporting turn, wisely restrained where other actors would go big, and all of the Oscar buzz he’ll likely receive for it is more than deserved.
Ignoring Rafe Spall as the cartoonishly evil district attorney Tommy Champan, the supporting cast is littered with fantastic smaller performances, from Tim Blake Nelson to O’Shea Jackson Jr., though none cast a larger shadow than Rob Morgan’s crushing turn as Johnny D’s death row prison-mate, Herbert Richardson. A late scene involving him is the best and most difficult-to-watch sequence of the film, wisely played agonizingly long by Cretton in order to brutally demonstrate the inhumane process he’s been forced through. It’s truly gut-wrenching, leaving the type of soul-shaking impact that you wish the rest of the movie was capable of delivering. In the moment Just Mercy is certainly serviceable as a crowd-pleasing call for change, but its flirtations with greatness only lead to more frustration when the bigger picture fails to deliver on them.