Jacob Richardson | 22/01/2019
Solid performances and a remarkable true life story can’t elevate this paceless film from the depths of mediocrity.
Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) is a young black lawyer, just graduated from Harvard. Instead of picking up a cruisy, well paid job, he heads (with federal funding) to Alabama to fight for inmates on death row who haven’t been given adequate legal assistance. He sets up the Equal Justice Initiative with Alabama do-gooder Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) and together they begin to tackle the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) - a black man, unjustly put on death row for the murder of a young white woman, against a mounting of contradictory evidence, all because of the colour of his skin.
The first thing to praise Just Mercy for is the quality and strength of its performances. The lead duo of Jordan and Foxx in particular acquit themselves tremendously in this piece; from the subtle nuanced performance by Foxx when his character’s retrial is denied, to the burning but subdued rage of Jordan as his character is forcibly strip searched against protocol and regulation on his first visit to the prison. The quality of their performances (and indeed Brie Larson’s too) creates a sense that this is a poignant, affecting and significant dramatic work.
So too does the true life story of this piece, which is incredible and remarkable. Stevenson’s life and works have done so much good, and his first major success was with McMillian, so the gravity of his victory here is never lost in amongst the films dramatic retelling - this is the first building block in a necessary and vital legal institution that continues to do incredible work to this day.
The problem is that all of this grandiose sense of self-importance isn’t backed up by a film that is worthy of it. Just Mercy is long - unnecessarily so. It drags constantly, and the actual key events are parsed out so few and far between with long atmospheric sections that do little to add to any narrative development. While it is an interesting true life case, and a significant one from a historical perspective, it isn’t a dramatic one. We don’t find out who the real killer is, it isn’t some sort of shock. That is perhaps to be expected from such a true life adaptation - real life is never as interesting or shocking as what someone can concoct from their imagination - but here some sense of tension, investigation, or suspense outside of just talking to a witness and seeing if higher up courts will be just as racist would have been appreciated.
It is a shame, because the performances on display here, and the man behind the Equal Justice Initiative in real life, both deserve a tighter, more affecting film than what we have on display here.
Just Mercy is just OK.