What a a cop out.
Destin Daniel Crettin’s “Just Mercy” reeked of self importance and laziness; the actors and director know that this an emotional subject matter and it’s almost comical how little has gone into this film in terms of character development and technique. The script is so pumped full of sanctimonious drivel that the actors aren’t able to transcend beyond two dimensional cardboard cutouts to actual living and breathing people.
In the hands of the right director this could have been an absolute beauty; Michael B. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, a young black Harvard law graduate who moves to Alabama to represent prisoners on death row. He meets Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who has been wrongly accused and sentenced to death for the brutal murder of a young white girl. Stevenson discovers that Johnny D’s conviction is entirely based upon the unreliable testimony of an already twice convicted felon Ralph Meyers (Tim Blake Nelson in the only convincing performance of the entire film). The rest of the film is Stevenson seeking to have Johnny D’s trial reopened.
It’s an incredible story, and should have been relatively easy to translate to film. “Dead Man Walking” is one of my favourite movies, and is as gripping and riveting as this is dull and uninspired. I actually remember wondering in “Just Mercy” how could it be possible that Sean Penn’s character in “Dead Man Walking”, who was actually guilty of the crime for which he had been charged, could seem more human and relatable than Jamie Foxx in “Just Mercy”. I think it’s because “Dead Man Walking” actually treated Sean Penn’s character as a proper and complex individual and gave him dialogue that was organic and true to the character rather than the generic and unimaginative nonsense that Foxx was coming out with.
I’m not a huge fan of Jamie Foxx as an actor, and I’m surprised that he’s been receiving so much acclaim for his performance. I found him so flat in this film; there was nothing remarkable or memorable about his portrayal and he brought no warmth or humanity to who was a real life person with his own traits and ticks and unique characteristics which Foxx had an obligation to at least attempt to capture. In my mind, Foxx failed completely and it was difficult for me to become invested in the outcome of the trial when I couldn’t see Johnny D as anything more than a plot device.
Jordan is fine as the ambitious young lawyer, but again nothing remarkable. What I found strange about the film was how easy the whole process seemed. I was looking forward to this film as a legal court room thriller, (which is how it had been advertised), and was confused how the trial only actually began two hours into the run time. There is no freaking way that the trial ended as quickly as it did or in those circumstances, and the film was over three minutes later in such an anticlimactic finale that I was sure I must have missed something or had fallen asleep.
This could have been a gripping legal thriller highlighting the injustice brought upon African Americans in the US court system. Instead “Just Mercy” is an insipid, uninspired and reductionist medley of mediocre and manipulative rhetoric and when a film doesn’t care about the actual people portrayed in the film or their story and pushes the political message to the forefront, both the individual and the cause get lost along the way.
By Jock Lehman