In 2013, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton released his seminal film, Short Term 12, a gripping and compassionate drama featuring a who’s who of today’s stars. You couldn’t pick a movie better suited to Cretton’s skillset than Just Mercy; a wrenching courtroom drama about a young attorney working to free death row inmates. With Cretton’s track-record, two headlining stars, and drawing inspiration from a true story, Just Mercy looks custom-built for a strong award season run.
Just Mercy centres on Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a fresh out of law school defence attorney. Bryan heads to Alabama to get his hands dirty in the state’s joke of a legal system; a place where black men receive death sentences based on nothing more than a white person’s word.
Helping Bryan is Eva Ansley (a severely underutilized Brie Larson), a family woman with a big heart. The story focuses on the Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) case. Walter is on death row based on, you guessed it, a white man’s shaky testimony. The unholy amount of evidence supporting his innocence would matter if Alabama’s legal system were remotely fair.
Just Mercy has the right elements for a gripping courtroom drama – including a knockout turn by Rob Morgan – but can’t quite bring it all together in a compelling way. This film, at times, comes across like a TV movie. With its strong performances and rousing story, Just Mercy feels well-polished, but its lack of grit makes it feel by the numbers.