If one were to list off the common pitfalls of biopics, ‘formulaic’ would likely be near the top. Yet, Just Mercy proves that sticking rigidly to an expected formula need not necessarily be a bad thing as long as your story is moving enough and your lead performances powerful enough. Fortunately for Destin Daniel Cretton’s careful and controlled death row legal drama, it has all the heart and star power it needs to overcome any qualms you might have about its simplicity and lack of originality.
Following the first landmark case of inspiring public defender Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) and his Equal Justice Initiative, Just Mercy hones in on a tragic, infuriating case from Alabama. After the brutal killing of a white teenage girl, the local police were so desperate to give the public a culprit that they seized upon Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), a black man with a perfect alibi that was summarily ignored as they threw him straight into a death sentence.
Bryan’s fight to not only get Walter off death row but to exonerate him altogether plays out largely as you would expect from a courtroom biopic, but that doesn’t mean its big scenes hit any less hard. Triumphs and defeats have resounding emotional impacts, and the two leads are fantastic. Jordan keeps his naturally explosive charisma just beneath the surface, utterly commanding even when he’s quiet, and Foxx is even better. It’s his best, least mannered performance since Django Unchained, and his charting of the peaks and troughs of Walter’s hope and anguish is superb.
You might see it all coming, but Just Mercy will break and lift your heart regardless. Cretton’s steady, unshowy direction lets his story and actors speak for themselves, making for one of the better ‘Oscar Bait’ titles of the year.
CAST: Michael B Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson
DIRECTOR: Destin Daniel Cretton
WRITERS: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham (screenplay) + Bryan Stevenson (memoir)
SYNOPSIS: Just Mercy shadows world-renowned civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson as he recounts his experiences and details the case of a condemned death row prisoner whom he fought to free.