Just Mercy has an important story to tell about racism, injustice and the continuing struggle to find equal justice under law. As such, why is the film so dry?
Idealistic young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) has found his calling to represent poor death row-convicted men and give them free legal representation with the hopes of exonerating those who are not guilty. Traveling down from posh Delaware to poor Alabama, Bryan stars his Equal Justice Initiative alongside Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), a native Southerner. While we find many in Just Mercy that require his help, a lot of time is spent with one client in particular: Walter "Johnny D." McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was railroaded into a guilty conviction with overt racism being the reason he is about to die.
Bryan investigates and finds that despite overwhelming evidence of Johnny D.'s innocence, he was convicted exclusively due to the testimony of Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), a white man who got a deal with the overtly racist sheriff for his own prison term. The new District Attorney, Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) is no help. Bryan fights on, culminating in a 60 Minutes story that forces attention on the case. Eventually, Johnny D. is set free.
Again, Just Mercy should be a strong, fascinating film, but everything about it is so wrapped up in being "noble" that it simply forgets to be "good". Even the title, "Just Mercy" sounds rather grand and noble.
One of the film's biggest issues is its length at two hours-plus, which simultaneously feels excessive and incredibly short. By that I mean that we get bits and pieces of other stories that feel tacked on. All these subplots may make for interesting reading if one picked up the real Stevenson's memoir, but on film they seem to be leftovers from an extended version we may never see.
Take for example the subplot of Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan). As portrayed in Just Mercy, this troubled Vietnam veteran who was guilty of murder (albeit accidental when a bomb he planted killed someone), he comes across as less a genuine person and more almost a parody of Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile. It borders on bonkers that director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (adapting Stevenson's memoir with Andrew Lanham) did not see that this subplot, down to the almost Tom Hanks-like officer, was pushing the believability of things to near-incoherence.
That Richardson was a real person only makes this whole subplot all the more unfortunate in how it came across. That alone would have been terrible, but going into almost gleefully perverse detail on the actual implementation of the death penalty seems sadistic. Just Mercy was inches away from showing an actual execution, and despite being opposed to death penalty I don't support coming that close to showing it.
It is as if Cretton and everyone in Just Mercy wanted to film the entirety of the book versus focus on one element in it, making the whole film feel stretched.
Another major issue in Just Mercy is that there were no performances. What I saw were stock characters played in such a one-note fashion that they ended up having no personalities. It takes an especially inept film to reduce the reliable and skilled Jordan to a single characteristic: righteousness. As played by Jordan, Bryan Stevenson is eternally noble, but he also is eternally dull. Apparently, he has no life, no joys, just a nobility that many saints never achieve.
We are expected to rely on stock characters to where they do not come across as real despite being based on real events. Every white person is so cartoonishly racist you think we'd wandered into a bonkers version of In the Heat of the Night, and even that film had the racist sheriff evolve. Here, the film starts with A.) the sheriff knowing Johnny D. personally and B.) the crime already committed and this cracker already knowing Johnny D. did it. Much later in the film we are told that Johnny D. had had a fling with a white woman, so that suggest the motive behind the racism, but because we are dropped off in medias res when Just Mercy begins it's less of a shock and more of a snooze.
Again, while these may be real people or at least based on them, they come across as so insanely fictional I would forgive anyone who thought this was all fiction. Nelson's false witness Myers may be exactly as he was in real life, but he looks funny even when being serious. Larson's Southern accent is so awful you think her dialect coach was Anne Hathaway. Foxx's innocent surprisingly seems rather distant to where you almost don't feel a need to save him.
Noble intentions can get you only so far. Just Mercy has an excellent and necessary story that is lost in its nobility and failed Oscar aspirations. I know many people think highly of it: the theater I attended loved the film. It is not a bad film but it drowns in its saintly manner that despite being a true story it feels so hollow and empty. It's a terrible disservice to the work of the Equal Justice Initiative.