Most of us probably don’t know Bryan Stevenson, Walter McMillian, or the unfortunate set of circumstances that brought them together. And while we don’t know this specific story, we’ve seen and heard about stories just like this for generations now. That’s one reason why Just Mercy will be familiar to people who see it, but how you feel about its style and overall content depends on what you want out of a movie like this.
We follow Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young lawyer who decides to reject the many lucrative jobs he’s been offered in order to move to Alabama. There, he sets out to defend those who were wrongly condemned or not afforded proper representation. This leads him to meeting Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the murder of an 18-year-old girl in spite of a lack of any real evidence.
I’ll start by making a few points about the acting. I found what we get here to be credible as every actor fits nicely into all of the characters they play. Because of this, you get strong and stable performances that don’t show too many potential weaknesses of any kind. The reason for this is partially due to the acting abilities of the performers, but they also never have to overextend themselves either since nearly all of the performances can be described as stoic yet personable.
While I found the acting to be mostly safe because of this, you can also say that about the entire picture when taking the subject matter into account. Usually, with films like this, you get a few moments where things explode in one way or another. These scenes are usually important to showcase the heightened levels of emotion that are flowing through a character (or characters) due to the extremely challenging circumstances they’re facing.
We get close to this feeling maybe once, but the rest of it was generally calm. I guess there’s a chance that maybe this is the way it happened in real life. If so, that’s fine with me. However, there was a high stakes game being played here with lives literally being on the line. With that being what they were presented with, I would expect a bit more emotion from at least a few of these guys in one way or another.
The lack of punch makes the film feel kind of lightweight for its subject matter. One reason for this could be the protagonist that the film is centered around. Michael B. Jordan’s Bryan Stevenson is portrayed as relatively calm in the face of adversity. He is measured in his approach and doesn’t let too much get to him.
If this is similar to who Stevenson actually is, I can see why Just Mercy feels the way that it does. When building the film around such a character, there’s a chance that many other aspects will mirror his mood. With him being the main focus, we don’t get as many scenes from Walter McMillian and his family. More scenes with them could have possibly altered the perspective and tone since they’re the ones who show most of the emotion we see in the movie.
However, the feel of the movie could also be attributed to the overall direction of the film. Maybe this is how Destin Daniel Cretton envisioned it and was able to display it in this manner. I don’t know, but it ends up feeling tame and less like the “heavy hitter” it might want to be. I’m sure the actual people involved felt the stress of fighting against a racially corrupt legal system as they tried to save someone who’s sitting on death row. In my opinion, it’s important to show something like that a bit more.
Either way, there’s a fluid motion streaming through this film that’s undeniable. Aside from the solid and consistent acting, there’s an even pace that carries this picture from start to finish. This and the fact that they don’t waste too much time getting us to where we need to be gives the film a brisk feel and makes everything at least seem like it’s moving faster than it actually is.
There’s no doubt in my mind that most will find Just Mercy to be watchable. The problem with that is that I’m sure they were hoping for more. This is the type of film that hopes to win awards, but I don’t think they’ll be in a good enough position for that to happen. Even with that being said, I think everyone involved with this project comes out unscathed in the end. You can’t always say that about movies that are hoping to get mentioned during awards season.
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Destin Daniel Cretton
Michael B. Jordan
Tim Blake Nelson
O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Film Length: 137 minutes
December 25th, 2019 (Limited)
January 10th, 2020 (Wide)
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
- Score - 7/107/10