Just Mercy ★★★

Though hampered somewhat by occasionally pedestrian pacing and procedural, predictable plotting, Just Mercy is able to grasp at enough of the gravitas from its riveting real-life story to eventually leave an emotional impact on viewers, especially thanks to the authentic acting from its central cast.

Like many biopics, it seems that the true story behind this theatrical tale is far more compelling than its cinematic counterpart. While the disgusting discoveries of the evils embedded in the American justice system are just as unsettling, Destin Daniel Cretton’s docile direction and his straightforward screenplay (co-written by Andrew Lanham) are a tad too conventional to fully elevate this drama from its traditional Oscar Bait™ trappings to something truly transcendent. Make no mistake, Just Mercy has all the makings of a tearjerking crowdpleaser - from the cast of colorful characters to the deft blend of dramedy to the “showstopping” sequences of sincere sentiment and sorrow - but it arrives at these “stirring scenes” in almost an obligatory fashion, and it doesn’t help that the film runs at an overlong 137-minute runtime, which tends to draw out the otherwise perfunctory plot and further dilute the dramatics. Nevertheless, when certain scenes do succeed - namely, a saddening subplot regarding Rob Morgan’s Herbert Richardson, a former soldier from Vietnam who is rattled by PTSD and stuck on death row instead of receiving proper mental health assistance - the film can soar and show glimpses of the strength one wishes it possessed the entire time. Michael B. Jordan’s Bryan Stevenson’s fight to free Jamie Foxx’s Walter McMillian is a naturally powerful story on the page, but it needed a bit more passion to fully pop on the big screen.

Speaking of Jordan and Foxx, one area where Just Mercy effortlessly excels is with its accomplished and affectionate actors, who approach the material with the appropriate empathy and compassion and turn in performances that feel far more nuanced and naturalistic than their stereotypical surroundings. Jordan’s Stevenson may be almost too stoic and softhearted, but his determined devotion to McMillian’s case and his tireless tenacity are relentlessly relatable attributes regardless, and his earnestness is enlightening. Foxx is a fierce force to be reckoned with as the unjustly accused and imprisoned McMillian, channeling all the understandable anger experienced by this man while never losing sight of his harrowing humanity either. Foxx’s portrayal is both specific to McMillian’s story and representative of the emotional turmoil that all wrongly convicted African-American inmates endure, and it’s genuinely affecting acting that’ll stick with you long after the credits roll. Brie Larson is little more than a feisty sidekick quip-machine for Jordan’s Stevenson, but she’s as reliably entertaining as ever, while the aforementioned Rob Morgan and the terrific Tim Blake Nelson both turn in equally exceptional work as fellow inmates involved in McMillian’s personal life and past.

Just Mercy is far too safe and straightforward for its own good, often undercutting the poignant power of its true story, but with acting this admirable and a tale this tremendous, it doesn’t lose all of its luster. Though it certainly could’ve been much less conventional, as it stands, Just Mercy is a passable peek into our country’s painful past, elevated significantly by its stars.

2019 Ranked

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