Friday, 10 January 2020

Review: Just Mercy



Just Mercy
Cert: 12A / 137 mins / Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton / Trailer


The UK film distribution community’s resolution of Po-Faced January™ continues*1 as director and screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton brings us Just Mercy, based on legal-aid lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s true-life book of the same title.

Set over the course of 1986-1993, Michael B. Jordan portrays Stevenson as he works for inmates on Death Row in an Alabama state prison. One of his clients is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), whose sentence for murder is shaky at best. Stevenson begins the arduous task of investigating the case properly in a bid to overturn the conviction, coming up against all the obstacles one would expect in a small town in America’s southern states. Ahem.

STILL


Now it’s easy to be cynical about a film like this, but it’s easier still to be unquestioningly swept up in the earnest drama. Just Mercy is very good at what it does, but that’s undercut by having such a broad target that it’s difficult to imagine a version of this film which wouldn’t work. Foxx does best out of all the performers here, his mix of defiance, introspection and dignity perfect for the role of a wrongly-condemned man. Likewise, Jordan copes well with the faith and dogged determination of a rookie lawyer trying to unearth the truth, but struggles more in the moments of anger which Stevenson has to endure. Brie Larson plays a lawyer’s assistant*2.

But the film itself lacks the punch that the true story should have, almost pedestrian in its direction and pacing. Just Mercy is almost exactly the film an audience expects, walking a well-trodden path without ambition. Which, given the actual gravity of the events, is borderline negligent.

BLOSSOMS


A large part of the problem (for a film which I enjoyed, remember) is the almost autopilot structure. Perhaps assuming that everyone watching remembers the case from three decades ago*3, Stevenson is almost immediately convinced that McMillian is innocent, even before the exonerating evidence is discovered. And because the film is from Stevenson’s perspective, the audience then becomes convinced he’s innocent, too. So while there’s still some jeopardy in overturning Walter’s conviction*4, there’s never any narrative doubt or a chance that Bryan will uncover something he wishes he hadn’t. A little moral ambiguity would have made for a much stronger film.

Because as much as Just Mercy has working in its favour, the film is shameless awards-bait. It ticks all the right (and righteous) boxes for judging panels, while the 12A certificate ensures there’ll be nothing in there to actually upset them properly. Closing out with a montage of the real-life players (because of course), there’s the lingering thought that the film should be upsetting. Like this week’s other contender, we’re a long way off these issues being fixed. Patting ourselves on the back that justice is occasionally done isn’t really a workaround.

Ultimately, Just Mercy is a decent film, but a forgettable one. Far more forgettable than a story like this should be...



So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Imagine if John Grisham was doing 1980s daytime TV movies.
This will sit well on the shelf next to Green Book
.


Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you think you know what you're going to see then you know exactly what you're going to see, so that's very much up to you.


Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Streaming, there won't be too much re-watching in this.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's certainly 'up there' for the ones who shine.


Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
That's possible.


Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Tim Blake Nelson is in this, and he was in that Lincoln with David 'Kallus' Oyelowo, Joseph 'Slowen' Gordon-Levitt and Adam 'Kylo' Driver


Although it's a shame I'm not Marvel-spotting for this bit because the film's got Killmonger/Human Torch, Captain Marvel and Electro in it. Also, Tim Blake Nelson was Samuel Sterns in 2008's Incredible Hulk, but like I said, that's not what this bit's for.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 For what it's worth, not everything is doom and gloom as my local has an advance screening of the upcoming riotous comedy Like A Boss in a couple of weeks' time. I'm not going of course, as by the looks of the godawful trailer it'll make me far more angry than any hand-wringing awards-nudgers ever would. [ BACK ]

*2 And yes, the depth of that sentence is largely reflective of Larson's role in the film and the scope which she had in defining it. The second-best thing about Room is here as a secretary. Just wow. [ BACK ]

*3 And yes, I'm saying after assuming earlier this week that everyone watching Bombshell will have read the news reports of the case in 2016. A quick scant of social media the very next day shows that this is not the case. Mea culpa with that one. [ BACK ]

*4 Because let's be fair, nobody makes this film with this cast for a January release and has the third-act reveal of "anyway it turned out he had done it after all, so we watched him fry while we had a beer...". The actual identity of the actual murderer is something of an afterthought by the way, but since the case was never successfully closed that's perhaps understandable.
[ BACK ]


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• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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