Played by Michael B. Jordan with his usual combination of composure and submerged fire, Stevenson is the main protagonist in “Just Mercy,” but this isn’t a biopic. As much as viewers come to admire him for his courage and dedication, they don’t necessarily come to feel they know him. There are moments when “Just Mercy” threatens to become as meandering and mired-down as McMillian’s case itself.
But Cretton keeps the narrative on course, leading the audience through the stakes and specifics of Stevenson’s quest with welcome clarity.
Foxx, delivering one of the finest performances of his career in a role that involves as dramatic a physical transformation as his Oscar-winning turn in “Ray,” is joined by an equally impressive supporting cast, which includes O’Shea Jackson Jr., Darrell Britt-Gibson and Rob Morgan, who brings enormous sympathy to a prisoner whose extenuating circumstances throw the perversity of the death penalty into heartbreaking relief.
Propelled by a liltingly beautiful musical score by Joel P. West, “Just Mercy” keeps its emotions on a low simmer, its absorbing, tautly designed drama finally coming to a climax that is satisfying on one level, and absolutely shattering on another. From its smooth visuals and warm, swinging sounds to its magnificent performances, “Just Mercy” is masterfully constructed to keep us inside a story that otherwise would be too brutal to bear.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including some racial epithets. 2 hours, 17 minutes.
Bottom line: An absorbing, tautly designed drama