JUST MERCY – Review
The new legal drama JUST MERCY is set in Monroeville, Alabama, the town where Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, the Pulitzer-winning novel about racial injustice. The audience knows this because they’re reminded of it several times and the parallels to Lee’s story are obvious. JUST MERCY is an earnest, well-intentioned film with a couple of outstanding supporting performances but it feels stale, a story we’ve seen many times before. Based on true events, JUST MERCY follows rookie attorney and Harvard grad Bryan Stevenson (founder of the prisoner advocacy group Equal Justice Initiative and played Michael B. Jordan) in 1988 when he took on the case of Walter McMillian (known as Johnny D and played by Jamie Foxx). Johnny D was convicted of killing a white woman, but Stevenson is convinced he’d been railroaded so attempts to prove his innocence and prevent his execution. When Stevenson digs in to the Johnny D case he exposes a cover-up complete with shoddy testimony and dishonest witnesses. The family and friends of Johnny D know he is innocent but the stubborn and racist views of the Monroeville, Alabama Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) stand by their work and the conviction, even after Stevenson gets Johnny D’s story on 60 Minutes.
Stevenson is played with grace and intelligence by Michael B. Jordan, but this character is bland and his courtroom speeches lack fire. Foxx is solid as Johnny D and though he’s not at the film’s center, he finds proper balance in a man both strong and broken. Adding little is Brie Larson as activist Eva Ansley, the “white savior” role that these types of movies don’t really need but always seem to have. JUST MERCY, already overlong at 136 minutes, would have flowed better had Larson’s character been left out. There are a pair of terrific supporting actors in JUST MERCY that elevate the proceedings whenever they’re on screen. First is a turn by Rob Morgan as the only one of Johnny D’s fellow death row inmates who actually confesses to his guilt. Morgan plays the part as a man genuinely remorseful and he’s all the more powerful and sympathetic for it. Even better is Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Meyers, a pathetic fire-scarred prosecution witness willing to change his testimony if only the courts would believe him.
Since there’s never much doubt about Johnny D’s innocence, this story needed a movie with purpose and urgency to counteract the familiarity of its premise. It’s not sanctimonious, but there’s a general lack of drama in the courtroom scenes of JUST MERCY and the by-the-numbers, pedestrian script is repetitive and offers no surprises. An emotional death-row execution that should have been a dramatic highlight is overlong and lacked the impact of similar scenes in THE GREEN MILE. Bryan Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative continue to do good work for wrongly convicted inmates and while I’m sure JUST MERCY will bring attention to his worthy cause and efforts, I simply wish it had been a better film.
2 of 4 Stars