Chicago International Film Festival Review: Just Mercy finds justice on death row

A film like Just Mercy lays all cards on the table before it even starts.

On the surface, it’s another entry in the long-line of righteous fury pointed at miscarried justice and a system unashamed by its own historical wrongdoings. And yes, that’s pretty much what it is, adapting the true story from a 2014 book penned by attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson tracking his role in helping overturn a criminal conviction for an innocent Alabama’s Walter McMillian (played here by an awards-ready Jamie Foxx) who spent almost six years awaiting his fate on death row.

Now with the story committed to film, director Destin Daniel Cretton benefits from having two brilliant core actors help retell this rather straight forward but infuriating legal drama. Michael B. Jordan handles the role of Stevenson here, while Foxx maintains a singular focus on portraying McMillian as a man whose spirit has been devastated by the system. Where Stevenson is at first naïve and hopeful, McMillian is barely responsive and empty, and watching both slowly leave those pole positions is the sole reason Just Mercy works so well.

Success certainly isn’t due to Cretton’s directing. Although maybe his minimal intervention is what makes all the difference here. His rather flat and safe approach to the film does suck some of the spirit from the more triumphant moments, although sitting back and just observing this excellent cast mirror the script is perhaps the right decision.

A recent HBO documentary already illustrated the fundamental importance of Stevenson’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative. Just Mercy is very much a continuation of that, but putting a bigger and more visceral focus on the insidious emotional impact such a struggle against a grossly biased justice system can have. Stevenson is incredulous as he quickly realises his ideals don’t match with the reality of the courts, while McMillian has been dehumanised to the point where he regaining any hope at all is a struggle.

As both are changed as functions of the system that they are dealing with, those around them convey a similar sense of strain. An Alabama local, Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) comes on board as Stevenson’s paralegal and practical support. Although the character is barely used, weakening the overall dynamic between the system and the largely racist society in which it operates.

Support actors on the other side of the coin are, conversely, overused and exaggerated. Rafe Spall’s bigoted Tommy Champan, for example, is hammy and cartoonish, feeling like an inelegant contrast to the film’s otherwise subtle and unspoken elements. He is unmistakably and maliciously racist, explicit in a film where the implicit is a lot more effective.

An earnest homage to a most remarkable lawyer and pioneer, Just Mercy may be old-hat as far as legal dramas go, but at least it’s a good one. And thanks to two particularly superb performances, and a gimmer of hope towards the end, the film is strong and impactful enough to provoke action and inspire change.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Just Mercy screened as part of the 55th annual Chicago International Film Festival. It does not yet have an Australian release date.

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review and a freelance travel writer. You can reach him on Instagram by following @chrisdsingh.

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