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“Just Mercy” Takes The Familiar Beats Of A True Life Legal Drama And Finds The Emotional Core

It’s almost impossible not to recognize the plot points and dramatic beats being depicted in Just Mercy. At the same time, it’s nearly as difficult to not be affected by them. Such is the case when a familiar tale is told exceedingly well and impeccably acted. Earnest, wearing its heart on its sleeve, and fully believing in the power of its story, this movie is more than just an eventual feel good tale. There’s a low key anger on display too, which is helpful. Though never quite able to break free into greatness, this is still a very good flick and well worth seeing when it opens this week.

The film is a true life drama, based on the life of well known civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), and in particular the case of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx). When we meet Brian, he’s a recent Harvard Law graduate, eschewing corporate law in order to defend inmates on Death Row who may have been wrongfully convicted. He opens up shop down in Alabama, a state not happy to have him. It seems like only a local advocate for the condemned in Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) supports him, and she’s his first employee. Among his initial caseload is Walter, convicted years ago for murdering a teenage girl, though almost all evidence points to his innocence, save for testimony from Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson). Diving into the case, Bryan tries over the years to untangle the racist strings of the system that put Walter so close to execution, all while the clock ticks. As he does that, Walter deals with his seemingly hopeless situation, bonding with another Death Row inmate in Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan). Being a biopic of sorts, it’s not too hard to guess where this one is going, but there’s still satisfaction in seeing how it unfolds. Destin Daniel Cretton directs and adapts Stevenson’s book with Andrew Lanham. Brett Pawlak handles the cinematography, while Joel P. West composes the score. Supporting players include O’Shea Jackson Jr., Karan Kendrick, Rafe Spall, and more.

The combination of Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan, and Rob Morgan make for a powerful trio here. Foxx has the baity role, as well as the one that’s meant to grab all of your sympathy. He’s very good here, really inhabiting the character, though occasionally the script forgets to really give him the attention deserved. Jordan has the lead turn, and is rock solid, though it’s not showy in the way a cinematic lawyer often can be. He’s a classy and determined crusader, something Jordan absolutely aces. Then, there’s Morgan. While Morgan is an absolute scene stealer, he’s also just giving the best and most emotional performance in the picture. Your heart breaks for and with him, which is a true accomplishment, considering the character. Brie Larson is solid too, though in a somewhat forgettable role.

Just Mercy showcases how talented an observational filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton is. While the screenplay he co-wrote with Andrew Lanham hits all the beats a Hollywood production needs, his unfussy director spends time looking at his characters in these situations. There isn’t an overt amount of style on display, but the material does not demand that. Instead, it just needs a sure hand to keep you invested, especially considering the familiarity of the story. Luckily, Cretton has that, and then some.

This weekend, audiences looking for an adult drama with some quality acting would do well to check out Just Mercy. A number of comparisons are being made between this and Clemency, but yours truly might be the only one who finds this flick to be far superior to that more independent one. It’s an apples and oranges comparison, but as an overall work, this movie is just better. More on the other film soon, but give this one a look for sure. It’ll undoubtedly leave a mark on your heart…

Be sure to check out Just Mercy, in theaters on Christmas Day!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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