The finest moments of Just Mercy are the quietest, when the director, Destin Daniel Cretton, pauses to consider the simple power of freedom. The biographical film begins in 1987, the year the Alabaman logger Walter McMillian was arrested for a murder he did not commit, based on one piece of coerced testimony. Before he’s stopped by police, McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx) is working in the forest and looks up to contemplate the sky. Years later, as he waits on death row, it’s a memory he returns to again and again: a mundane glimpse of something he didn’t know he could lose.
Details like this keep the entire movie from coming off as simple stenography—a trap that many biopics fall into and that’s sometimes a problem for Just Mercy. Cretton’s film is a mostly straightforward look at the attorney Bryan Stevenson’s efforts to defend death-row inmates and exonerate the wrongly accused. Much of Just Mercy’s plotting is procedural, tracking Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) as he moves to Montgomery, Alabama, in the early ’90s; takes up McMillian’s case, among others; and deals with community pushback while filing appeal after appeal of the wrongful conviction.
It’s a remarkable story, but a cinematically limited one, constantly in danger of seeming more like a news summary than a narrative work. No mystery surrounds McMillian’s innocence—it’s clear from the first minute that his arrest is a racist frame job, orchestrated by a sheriff who was panicking under pressure to solve the murder of a young white woman. Stevenson, whose criminal-justice work is still ongoing, is driven by his sense of morality, and his real-life heroism is dutifully represented on-screen.
As a result, Just Mercy often lacks ambiguity: Stevenson is good, McMillian is innocent, and the system that put the latter in jail is biased, heartless, and almost impossible to overcome. Cretton wisely refrains from injecting the harsh reality he depicts with the hackneyed subplots that fill out so many Hollywood-lawyer movies (a main character struggling with alcoholism, say, or a torrid affair). The trade-off for this faithfulness, though, is that Just Mercy has the energy of a documentary rather than a gripping courtroom yarn.
Even so, it’s a worthwhile viewing experience. Jordan has to tamp down his natural charisma to emphasize Stevenson’s stoicism in the face of bigotry and intimidation, but the rest of the ensemble has a little more room to maneuver. Foxx, a wonderful actor who too often finds himself in one-dimensional action roles, gives a powerhouse performance as a McMillian mostly inured to any sense of hope, expressing anguish only in brief gasps and sighs. The consistently underrated Rob Morgan (so compelling in Mudbound and The Last Black Man in San Francisco) does heartrending work as another death-row prisoner reckoning with the acts that landed him in jail. Cretton’s regular collaborator Brie Larson is fitfully fun as Stevenson’s co-worker Eva Ansley. Villains include an over-the-top Rafe Spall as an intractable district attorney and a more nuanced (if still showy) Tim Blake Nelson as the remorseful inmate whose false testimony led to McMillian’s arrest.
While the dramatic tension of Just Mercy depends on the sheer shamelessness of local government and the community’s inability to acknowledge the truth of McMillian’s innocence, its vitality comes from subtler poetic touches. Scenes that show McMillian’s memories of liberty or his lonely prison cell echo Cretton’s best work, the riveting 2013 drama Short Term 12, which explored the pockets of kindness and cruelty within an institutional group home for troubled teenagers. Still, despite Cretton’s efforts to keep the technical twists of the case from reading like a PowerPoint presentation, there are sections of Just Mercy’s 136-minute running time that sag. The film’s power lies in the brutality of its true story, and yet that narrative stays within fairly conventional bounds precisely because of Cretton’s commitment to telling it.