James Clay // Film Critic
TORONTO – There’s more to the film JUST MERCY than being a typical social-justice drama. Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s best asset (which he displayed in his debut SHORT TERM 12) is his empathy for everyday people. JUST MERCY reveals an overwhelming form of compassion for America’s most despised citizens.
Shortly after its premiere, the film was already positioned with early Oscar buzz. This type of awards season forecasting grows tiresome, but sometimes, there’s a really good movie that just so happens to fit that mold well.
Based on the 2014 novel by Brian Stevenson, this emotional plunge has Michael B. Jordan portraying the author as a young attorney fresh out of Harvard Law. Against the advice of his family, Stevenson travels to Alabama to assist death row inmates. This is where he meets Walter McMillan (Jaime Foxx, who’s back in top form), an innocent man who has been sentenced to death.
Stevenson’s the type of attorney whose not looking for anything in return except to help those who have been forgotten. The state of Alabama doesn’t make things easy on him. In one appalling scene, a correctional officer forces Stevenson to undergo a strip search to enter the prison and interview his clients. He and his plucky assistant, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), are subjected to corruption at every turn, from an inept district attorney (Rafe Spall) to death threats from the Alabama residents. Ansley and Stevenson come across the case of innocent family man McMillan, who has given up hope since winding up on death row for the murder of an 18-year-old white woman.
After years and years of pleas and several lawyers searching for avenues to exonerate McMillan, it’s Stevenson that thinks he found a clue in a coerced testimony by inmate Ralph Myers (a steely Tim Black Nelson) who will finally prove his innocence.
There have been movies like this for years. They follow the same template to achieve some emotional manipulation that leads to a message painted in broad strokes. Cretton’s film falls under this blanket, but his execution shows a filmmaker skilled at working with general audiences’ expectations and shining a glaring light on the American criminal justice system. (Seeing this movie with an international audience, I couldn’t help but wonder what they might be thinking…)
Foxx and Jordan get plenty of screen time to showcase emotional prowess in ways only movie stars can do, But the real emotional touchstones come from the side characters, including inmates and McMillian’s family members who are affected by his incarceration.
Rob Morgan, in particular, gives the film’s finest performance as an inmate named Herbert Richardson. Rousing courtroom drama aside, JUST MERCY succeeds best with tearjerking stories like Richardson’s. He was drafted to fight in Vietnam and suffers from life-shattering PTSD, and was later fast-tracked to death row for making a bomb during a psychotic break. It’s mind-blowing to be put in the position of somebody who has never had control of their own life. Cretton’s is skilled at tapping into compassion for the oppressed by always taking a genuine approach. These moments rarely feel phony or are inserting into the story to fulfill some crying quota.
There aren’t many twists to the straight forward narrative approach. It’s conventional, but it works. Between the hopeful, JUST MERCY and the more distant CLEMENCY filmmakers have been challenging the idea of capital punishment, or at the very least, these films are a plea for human decency. It’s easy to look back with 2019 hindsight on systemic corruption, but these problems remain valid and will be amplified by films like this. This may not be a subtle story, but it’s at least honest.
JUST MERCY screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. An encore screening will be held on September 14. Visit tiff.net for more information. The film will be released on January 10, 2020 by Warner Bros. Pictures.