FILM REVIEW – JUST MERCY. With Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx , Brie Larson, Rafe Spall, Tim Blake Nelson. Written by Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets. 136 minutes.
JUST MERCY has everything going for it. Based on a true story, it is about how lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) takes on the case of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) who sits on death row in Alabama, awaiting execution for a crime he did not commit. This cuts right to the heart of the debate over capital punishment: can we accept the state executing some people who may be innocent in order to protect the public? Why, then, is the film such a disappointment?
It’s not the cast. Jordan follows in the footsteps of Sidney Poitier (in “In the Heat of the Night”), as an African-American man from the North navigating a racist system in Alabama. He gathers evidence that shows that McMillan’s trial was flawed in not calling witnesses who would have testified he was nowhere near where the murder took place. He finds a a witness (Tim Blake Nelson) who did testify subsequently recants and admits he was coerced into lying under oath. However, neither the prosecutor nor the courts seem interested in doing justice. Jordan is tightly coiled as he suffers indignities and setbacks but remains committed to his cause.
Likewise, Foxx plays McMillan as a man caught up in a system where he knows the deck is stacked against him, and yet finds common ground with the young attorney wanting to fight on his behalf. He gets emotional moments – such as getting to see his family after a court appearance – without going over the top. When he does lose it at one point it’s not only justified but seems to a release of all the anger that he’s kept pent up. Brie Larson has less to do as Eva Ansley, McMillan’s partner in what became the Equal Justice Initiative. She’s there as a sounding board, helper, and moral support, but we don’t get to know her as we do with Stevenson and McMillan.
The problem is that director Destin Daniel Cretton – who adapted the script with Andrew Lanham from Stevenson’s book – has absolutely no sense of how to make this story interesting. The movie proceeds at a leaden pace draining the drama from much of narrative. It’s almost as if he’s internalized the attitude of many of the film’s characters to stoically endure the racism and injustice in hopes of a better outcome. When McMillan’s son explodes in anger against a judge who ignores the evidence in the case it’s a rare instance where we can see that it’s blood and not ice water flowing through the veins of these characters.
Although Cretton attracted some attention for his first feature, “Short Term 12” (2013) – which also starred Larson – his next film – “The Glass Castle” (2017) had the same problems “Just Mercy” has: too long, a meandering narrative, and a talented cast left to their own devices. The story of McMillan (who died in 2013) and Stevenson deserved much better than what they get here.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.