Directed by Short Term 12’s Destin Daniel Cretton and based on the book of the same name by Bryan Stevenson, a world-renowned civil rights defense attorney, Just Mercy follows his experiences when he moved to Alabama and fought to appeal the murder conviction of Walter McMillan. Michael B. Jordan takes the lead here, supported by Brie Larson, Jamie Foxx, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Tim Blake Nelson.
Ignoring the film for just a moment and simply considering the true story that it hails from, Bryan Stevenson a man who has dedicated his life to bringing justice to those who weren’t given a fair chance and left to rot on death row as a result. It’s surprising that his story hasn’t been brought to the screen before, it feels like it would fit in perfectly amongst a huge amount of television and Netflix series you’ve probably watched recently. It’s an inspiring story of dedication, perseverance and hope, in times of severe desperation, it’s a tale to restore your faith in humanity.
The problem with having such an inspiring story is that it requires a deft hand to bring the serious emotional depth required to live up to that. While the film does scratch the surface, with the bulk of the weight on Michael B. Jordan’s shoulders, he doesn’t have the range to go the distance. The writing creates strong, impressive speeches for Jordan to deliver but this shouldn’t be confused with an award-winning performance, he can give the speeches in a way that’s satisfying but has a tendency to remain in the realm of anger or resentment for 99% of his performances and it simply isn’t enough to give a real, mind-blowing and rounded performance. Being supported by Brie Larson and Jamie Foxx is certainly in his favour, Larson adds a down to earth sidekick and Foxx a desperate man and ultimate cause to root for. The three of them together do make a good team, although you don’t get to see Foxx and Larson act together, it’s a solid trio to lead a film but as history has proven many times, a great cast doesn’t automatically equal an amazing film. That said, the character Larson is portraying is not involved enough to justify it being an actress of her calibre, she certainly makes the most of her time on screen but it’s a role that could have easily been played a less established actress and the film simply can’t fully make use of her immense talent. Although Tim Blake Nelson definitely deserves a mention for his very convincing performance as Ralph Myers and Rob Morgan for the sheer emotion he throws at this film.
That brings you to problem number two, the running time, while 136 minutes isn’t necessarily long for your average film today, it begins to slow down in its second half and there are a handful of scenes that could have been left on the cutting room floor, which would have made for a more effective and impactful watch. When the film’s emphasis is already being hindered by the difficulty to have a more significant level of emotion, adding excessive time is only making things less convincing. The film begins with the best of intentions and a fantastic premise but it very quickly pulls its focuses inwards and there’s so much more that could have been explored with the extra time that was wasted on lingering moments and patronising insights into the characters. There are six inmates on death row that Bryan (Jordan) visits at the beginning of the film, each with a story of incompetent legal counsel but only two of them make it past those first few minutes, the rest are never heard from again. There’s also O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s character, on death row and a friend to the inmates that Bryan is helping but we don’t get to learn anything about his story until the very end which entirely makes him expendable, they either needed to have made him more involved and tell his back story for audiences to get invested in, or lose his arc altogether.
The editing needed to be much tighter, Jordan isn’t the strongest of leads and this role doesn’t completely play to his strengths and there was much more of the story to be told that was left out. The potential and intentions are there without doubt but it doesn’t come together as well as it should, it’s a good film that should have been a great film. With the raw emotions and intensity of Cretton’s Short Term 12, it’s a real shame to not see him bring that to this film. Just Mercy is an enjoyable watch and portrays an inspiring story that deserves to be told but ironically doesn’t quite do it justice.