Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy portrays the true story of how Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights attorney (played by Michael B. Jordan), began his career representing prisoners on death row. One of his clients, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) is awaiting his death sentence and has been locked up on dubious charges that the community around the prison seem all too happy to believe.
Local readers are very aware that this is the third film from Cretton, who hails from Ha‘iku, and that the talented filmmaker is currently working on a new Marvel movie. Just Mercy is a strong example of his ability to shape a complex, character-driven story but his breakout debut, Short Term 12, demonstrated the same thing. Whether it’s Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Two Rings (due next year) or a smaller scale film like Just Mercy, there is little Cretton can’t achieve, as his abilities as a cinematic storyteller are remarkable, especially just three movies into his presumably long career.
Jordan is commanding and charismatic in the lead role, reminding me of a time when Sidney Poitier would carry a film such as this. Foxx’s film career has had many peaks and valleys; this is an understated, controlled turn that serves the material well. While the leads are top notch and this is Jordan and Foxx’s movie, there are also supporting performances to savor. Brie Larson is affecting in her supporting role; once again, after appearing in his Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle, Larson provides her best work for Cretton. Other standouts include Rob Morgan in a devastating, complex role of a prisoner who feels his incarceration is justified for the crime he committed. Then there’s Tim Blake Nelson, creating a vivid picture of a man who has lived too long with a rotten secret. Finally, Rafe Spall’s villainous turn is so maddening because his type of small-town snake is so recognizable.
Around the midpoint, there is a sequence here involving an execution and how the prisoners react to it, with Cretton cutting back and forth between the clinical horrors of the procedure and the support fellow prisoners attempt to provide from their cells. It’s the film’s most dynamically crafted set piece and greatest achievement, a scene of tremendous power.
An interesting bit of subtext is the frequent mention of Atticus Finch, as the antagonists frequently mention a museum dedicated to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Since this is a period piece, it can be assumed that, while the characters onscreen are unaware of how Finch would later be portrayed in Lee’s highly controversial (and, let it be said, essential) Go Set a Watchman, the filmmakers certainly get it. The unspoken reversal of how Finch is portrayed by his own author, on top of Jordan being positioned as the film’s replacement of the old trope of a white enforcer of justice, speaks to the film’s progressive take on its genre.
The music score is heavy handed, overdoing the emotions that are already present in the performances. It’s as though the filmmakers didn’t fully trust the audience to share the outrage of the characters. Another touch that doesn’t derail the movie but feels like an overreach: the big closing speech and the cutesy exchange between the two leads in the final scene, which hammers away points already made and strives too hard for crowd-pleasing chest beating that, to be sure, the film has already achieved. Far stronger are the end credits, providing a post-script of what happened to the subjects after the events of the film.
There are a number of other films out recently about a pursuit of justice that arrives belatedly, namely Todd Hayne’s great, troubling (and no longer in theaters) Dark Waters. Cretton’s highly accomplished work has a few expected notes but succeeds mostly from its undeniable passion and empathy for the subject. Just Mercy is not the masterpiece Short Term 12 is, but a far more consistent work than the uneven but suitably painful The Glass Castle and shares its ability to convey the inner suffering of its characters. While Just Mercy is far from the first in the underdog-lawyer-takes-on-the-corrupt-system category, it leaves a haunting impact.
Three and a Half Stars
Rated PG-13/136 Min.
Photo courtesy IMDB