I feel bad about giving Just Mercy two stars, because it’s not an especially bad film. It’s an unnecessary film.
The events of Just Mercy centre on the real-life ordeal of Walter “Billie D” McMillian (Jamie Foxx) and his defence from death row by young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and assistant Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). If you’re relatively new to the cinematic medium, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the story, but it hits every beat that you’d expect from mid-‘90s Oscar bait movie taking on a similar topic.
The focus – systematic injustice built around centuries of racism and classism – is worthy. But despite the raw talent he demonstrated in Short Term 12 and a more-than-capable cast, director Destin Daniel Cretton can’t elevate the material beyond cliché. The story eschews mystery – it’s clear that Walter is innocent from the get-go, and there are no subsequent surprises – and, despite intermittent surges of emotion, lacks sufficient character complexity. Bryan is too good; he seems incapable of sustained self-doubt, and he’s such a straight arrow that even his late-film leverage of 60 Minutes feels antithetical to his character. That might be true to life, but it doesn’t make for an engaging movie.