Just Mercy review: a courtroom drama of real quality

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Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson lead Just Mercy – and it’s a film well worth seeking out.

It seems fashionable at the moment for films that have Something Important To Say to do so through an obfuscating veil of irony. Jojo Rabbit’s knowing humour; the Scorsese-worshipping intertextuality of Joker; even the very same director crafting The Irishman, a self-reflexive farewell to the genre that he redefined. This year’s awards contenders, whilst undoubtedly entertaining, possess an archness to them, a modern malaise perhaps, borne of our media-saturated, cynical society. It’s utterly refreshing then to encounter a film like Just Mercy, a finely crafted piece of storytelling that easily possesses the same worth as the films mentioned above, but one that’s told plainly and with an elegant sense of earnestness.

Just Mercy succeeds in investing its retelling of a true story about innocent black convicts on Death Row in Alabama, USA, and the lawyer trying desperately to save them, with a real emotional heft. Michael B Jordan plays world-renowned civil rights defence attorney, Bryan Stevenson, at the beginning of his career as he moves to Alabama in the late 80s with the intent of taking on a rigged system and overturning the convictions of innocent black men.

Whilst Just Mercy may lack the captivating, childlike narrative perspective of 1962’s To Kill A Mockingbird or the boiling societal tensions of 1996’s A Time To Kill, the simplicity of its presentation is its greatest strength. Scenes are given ample room to breathe, performances are understated, with Jordan’s depiction of Stevenson eschewing the courthouse grandstanding of his cinematic forebears in favour of a quiet, obstinate determination. Jamie Foxx, who is terrific as convicted felon Walter McMillian, adds a sense of fire to the proceedings but for the most part this is a movie where beats of silence or long moments of quiet reflection illustrate the inhumanity of a corrupt justice system more powerfully than flowery speeches or scenery-chewing could. Jordan is well supported by an ensemble cast who put in good work. Tim Blake Nelson, Brie Larson and Rafe Spall all work well in servicing the tone and shape of the story, with Rob Morgan crafting a wrenching performance as a convict suffering from PTSD, imbuing the character with a sense of tragedy that lives in the mind beyond the film’s end.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton must take credit for taking what is a worthy yet straightforward courtroom biopic, and imbuing it with an affecting sense of texture, so much that it left this writer much more invested than in any of the (genuinely enjoyable) films mentioned above, despite the greater amount of headlines and acclaim they may have generated.


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