Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Running Time: 136 mins
Just Mercy is an American film about the true story of a young lawyer who sought justice for a number of prisoners on death row in Alabama, having been convicted with unfair trials and on the back of false testimonies.
A powerful view on injustice and the devastating power of institutional corruption and racism, Just Mercy overcomes an often frustrating slow start to deliver enthralling drama and at times overwhelming dramatic gravitas. It’s not always the easiest watch, but with enormous passion, it provides memorable and compelling drama throughout.
From Destin Daniel Cretton (director of the extraordinary Short Term 12), Just Mercy is filled to the brim with the same emotional passion and frank human drama that the director has delivered so spectacularly in the past. This film may not be quite as affecting as Short Term 12, but it’s the frank nature of the drama that really hits home here.
The movie gets off to a slow start, characterised by what is often frustratingly one-dimensional drama over the course of the first hour. Just Mercy is not the great character drama that Short Term 12 is, and with its more engaging legal themes, it never really hits a sweet spot between character drama and legal drama.
However, the film really comes into its own in the latter half, as the tone takes a significant shift to powerful dramatic gravitas, showcasing an overwhelming and devastating perspective on true injustice, as we see the draconian and inhumane sentences imposed on those convicted without due legal process.
In tandem with that tonal shift, the screenplay also begins to place its eggs firmly in the basket of legal drama. The rather one-note character drama of the earlier stages takes a back seat for what turns out to be the better of the story and the film’s core message, as a gripping legal story opens up the door for the film’s scathing indictment on institutional racism, corruption and oppression.
Cretton delivers that message in powerful fashion throughout, and his passionate direction makes it a topic that really gets under your skin throughout, bringing home the devastating and almost inescapable reality of a system that works against people from the moment they’re born, with no respite for the innocent.
The film is also particularly striking in the way it presents its time period. The story is set in the late 1980s-early 1990s, but Cretton ingeniously makes little noise about that, instead telling the story in a style that makes it seem entirely like the most violent years of the 1960s, or even the 19th Century at moments.
It’s a subtle and clever way of further driving home the message that this kind of injustice persists right up to this day, and every time when you remember that you’re watching a true story that happened as recently as the 1990s, it’s really quite shocking to think about.
Just Mercy is undoubtedly at its strongest in its heaviest moments, and with a captivating and impassioned lead performance from Michael B. Jordan, those moments are not without immense emotional power. There are times when the film can stray into slightly cheesy territory – although only very briefly – and there are also moments in the first act that pale in comparison to what the film becomes later on.
Overall, however, there’s no denying that Just Mercy is a deeply powerful drama that overcomes a mixed start to deliver an affecting and infuriating story, riveting legal drama and an impassioned and scathing attack on the horrors of a corrupt institution that still exists today, and that’s why I’m giving the film an 8.1.