BFI London Film Festival

‘Just Mercy’ is a Well-Made Though Entirely Standard Courtroom Drama

Just Mercy is a typical example of the kind of movie awards season loves: based on the book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by lawyer Bryan Stevenson, which is based on a true story, the film maintains a theme of hope and plays as broadly to an audience as last year’s Best Picture winner, Green Book.

Just Mercy begins as the aforementioned Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) has just graduated law school and moved to Alabama to start the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Hoping to provide legal support to those who cannot otherwise afford it, he meets Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), a man who has been wrongfully convicted of the murder of a white woman.

Just Mercy movie

Although standard courtroom drama it may be, where Just Mercy prevails is in its compassion; it makes not only an argument against racism (the story is set from 1989 onwards, yet is still painfully relevant today), but also the death penalty, and in this regard proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. This is to the film’s credit, particularly in the case of the character of Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), who is neither exploited nor shied away from.

Just Mercy does utilize an incredibly straightforward narrative, however, and its broad strokes are occasionally frustrating. The antagonists are one step away from mustache-twirling, particularly Sheriff David Walker (Kirk Bovill), whose main purpose is to stare daggers into Stevenson as he strives to prove the innocence of his client. The negligence and corruption of the justice system is evident from the get go, but here is signposted with neon lights.

Despite this, Just Mercy couldn’t have gone wrong with its incredibly charismatic cast. Jordan, (always a welcome presence) is excellent, wisely knowing when to pull back; he refuses to make the movie all about his performance. He also has good chemistry with Larson, who seems to be on the same wavelength. This is only partly Ansley’s story, and Larson takes a back seat whilst maintaining the strength of the character; she is memorable as the woman who works with Stevenson, as opposed to for him — an important distinction made without shining a spotlight on it.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) is in no doubt talented and directs solidly, but there is nothing remarkable about his execution. Whilst never dull, the film reaches from A to B efficiently, but does little to make it stand out from the crowd. It may not become an instant classic, and is far from the most exciting film released this year, but what Just Mercy lacks in flair, it makes up for in likable performances and deeply felt convictions.

The BFI London Film Festival runs October 2-13. Visit the official website for more info.

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