Alongside The Stand by Stephen King, To Kill A Mockingbird is my favourite book. It remains the only novel I’ve thrown across the room in disgust and maintains a special place in my heart as the story that got me interested in writing, if only to try and capture that same raw emotion I felt thanks to Harper Lee. In a way, Just Mercy feels like a modern tribute to that book, with plenty of un-subtle hints and similarities in terms of structure and racist themes. In its enthusiastic emulation, Just Mercy plays off a little too formulaic at times, despite a very important and poignant tone running through most of the 2 hour run-time.
The story begins with an introduction to our two key characters, civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson and death row prisoner Walter McMillian. From here, the plot skips forward two years where we see Bryan working as a lawyer for inmates on death row, much to the disdain of the Alabaman authorities. Plunging head-first into the lion’s den, Bryan finds himself struggling to make sense of a case strung together with a thin shred of evidence and a system seemingly rigged from the top down. As the film progresses, Bryan takes on Walter’s case and fights for justice, building up to a climactic court case where he fights to free this wrongly convicted inmate.
At times, Just Mercy does play out a little slow-paced but to be honest, it works pretty well given the context of the film. This methodically paced drama takes it times to introduce the main players, the community and all the intricate elements of this case that work together to produce a powerful finale. If I’m honest, the dramatic court-room segments actually feel too quick-paced, arriving 90 minutes into the film and subsequently feeling a little too lackadaisical and lacking the same intensity something like To Kill A Mockingbird manages to achieve.
Despite the gripes, it’s ultimately the characters that keep this one so engaging. With plenty of close-up shots and lingering glances, Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan do a wonderful job here while Tim Blake Nelson portrays the skittish Ralph Myers perfectly. If there’s one weak link though it’s Brie Larson. Although she’s not given a lot to work with her range is limited, to say the least, and this film does her no favours next to the other actors.
Ultimately it’s the themes that make this such a powerful film and ironically it’s something that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Just Mercy isn’t exactly subtle in its admiration for To Kill A Mockingbird, taking the time to show framed pictures of mockingbirds, lingering on a sign welcoming visitors with a Mockingbird sign and even seeing characters mention the civil rights museum. I know these are supposed to feel bitterly ironic segments to get you thinking about inequality and racism but for me, it felt a little too on-the-nose, with a more subtle tone may have served the film better.
Overall though Just Mercy is well worth a watch. It’s not a particularly fast-paced or exciting film but it is a very important one, commanding the screen thanks to some powerful performances and some poignant, topical themes at its core. If you’re in the mood for a decent legal drama and are happy to persevere through the slow pace, Just Mercy rewards your patience with an engaging true-story picture.