Just Mercy Review: Jordan and Foxx boom with powerhouse performances in a raw and emotional true story
When I saw Short Term 12 for the first time a couple of years ago, the film not only introduced me to the incredible talent of Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr., but it also introduced me to the strongly emotional direction and writing of Destin Daniel Cretton. Every scene of Short Term 12 feels personal and real and the way immerses viewers into the environment through character interactions and dialogue. Now, Cretton reteams with Larson and brings on Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx to shed some light on an under-valued civil rights hero with his new film – Just Mercy.
Based on a true story, the film follows Bryan Stevenson (Jordan), a hopeful civil rights attorney that starts his own firm in Alabama and takes on the case of Walter McMillan (Foxx). After a white woman in murdered in his hometown, McMillan is wrongly accused and sentence to death even though there is minimal evidence against him. Losing hope that he truth about what happened will set him free, McMillan and his family find a new hope in Stevenson when he arrives and his chances of being freed become greater as Stevenson fights every inch in uncovering the truth behind McMillan’s sentencing.
Jordan continues to prove himself as one of the greatest acting talents of this generation by depicting one of the greatest civil rights heroes. As he goes deeper down the rabbit hole of McMillan’s case, he’s introduced to a horrifying world he didn’t even realize existed and it becomes the driving force that makes Jordan’s performance so strong. Jordan makes Stevenson someone that audiences can relate to as he begins to realize the deep-seeded racism that’s made many of the black communities live in fear and paranoia. Once the attention is turned on him, though, and he begins to experience and see the injustices occurring to his people, Jordan perfectly displays the frustrations and perseverance that makes Stevenson’s action so important. It’s easily one of Jordan’s best performances and he doesn’t come alone in giving truly powerful performances.
Foxx also presents another career best as McMillan and displays both the hopefulness of him being freed and the beaten down mentality that the area has forced him into. Seeing McMillan’s journey, as well as other inmates, on death row is actually quite horrifying in how real it feels. It’s a very humanizing experience as it delves into the horrors of being on death row – especially when its for something that you didn’t do. In reality, Foxx isn’t even on-screen as much as you would think, but the way that Cretton builds who he is through how other inmates and his family see him makes you understand and grow care for him even when he’s not in the scene. When Foxx is on-screen, though, he’s absolutely immaculate in acknowledging the hard facts of his situation and maintaining hope in a time and place where most people would give up. His chemistry with Jordan is pure magic and it’s hard not to find yourself connecting to the raw emotion these two build with every scene they’re in together.
Larson also continues her dominating with a strong performance that just could’ve been utilized better. Larson plays Eva Ansley, an Alabama native that plays a strong role in helping Stevenson survive as he tries to solve the case. While Larson definitely brings the strongly likable chops that I’ve always loved with her performances, I didn’t feel like she was used enough in the film to have a strong enough presence. There’re definitely some moments that show her character’s strengths and the flak she gets from fighting alongside Stevenson, but I couldn’t help but feel like she was just there for star-power at times. Tim Blake Nelson’s Ralph Myers, who plays a pivotal part in McMillan being sentenced, is also an interesting aspect to the racism and police presence, but the performance is a tad too cartoony at times. One of the best performances, though, comes from Rob Morgan as Herbert Richardson, another inmate that McMillan has a close bond with. It’s another strongly human performance that really latches onto your heart and constantly tugs on it as we see his journey on death row.
Honestly, Just Mercy wouldn’t be the same with Cretton as his depiction and building of the entire story really immerses viewers into this time. Death Row has never felt more daunting and the way he makes you feel the anxiousness and dread of waiting for anyone to get their execution date is literally horrifying. He captures the process of the death penalty in a visceral, yet tasteful, way and it leaves a strong enough mark on viewers to make them think more about the death penalty as a whole. Cretton also expertly builds both the legal and social obstacles that play a role in making Stevenson’s case much tougher. Not to mention, even seeing the firm that Stevenson builds in Alabama slowly grow was incredibly interesting and was a great way to see his influence build – even though there could’ve been more about it. Admittedly the social aspect, and the overall movie, do elicit the same kinds of emotions seen in plenty of other films from 2019 – like Dark Waters and The Report. However, it’s impossible to deny how the film moves viewers to tears and connect to them through the raw and powerful story its telling.
Cretton returns with a strong showing of his talents and a film that boasts two powerhouse, knockout performances from Jordan and Foxx that are among the best of their already stellar careers. It’s kind of unfortunate that Just Mercy has a bit too much familiarity to it that likely made it fly too low under the radar for major award consideration as it evokes strong emotion in depicting an inspirational true story. Either way, the next film on Cretton’s schedule is actually in the MCU with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and if he can bring the excellent and powerful storytelling that he’s shown before – MCU fans should expect something very special in their future.