Just Mercy

Michael B Jordan and Jamie Foxx


Just Mercy continues writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s zig-zag up the movie food chain. His breakthrough came in 2013’s Short Term 12, which not only made his own name but also that of Brie Larson, who is now playing Captain Marvel at god knows what hourly rate of pay. Trouper that she is, she turns out for Cretton again here, as she did in his last film, 2017’s The Glass Castle, though here she’s in a minor, supporting role to star Michael B Jordan.

Just Mercy tells a true story, of a smalltime lumber guy, Walter McMillian, known locally as Johnny D, who was picked up by the cops for the murder of a blond white woman in 1987. In spite of the fact that there was no evidence against him, that he had a cast-iron alibi with any number of witnesses that he wasn’t even in the town where it happened, Johnny found himself on death row in Alabama, from where not a single person had ever been released, except through the tender mercies of the electric chair.

Johnny’s actual crime, it’s suggested, was having fooled around with a white woman at some point, and what with Johnny being a black man in Alabama and all…

Enter Michael B Jordan as real-life superhero Bryan Stevenson (the film is based on his book), a young, idealistic Harvard graduate lawyer who has decided not to follow the money and is instead representing cases on Alabama’s death row. Having first worked out that none of the men he’s represented has had decent legal representation – defence lawyers who didn’t defend, didn’t mention vital facts in the case and so on – he takes on Johnny’s case, after some stiff-legged getting-to-know-yous.

Rafe Spall as the local DA



Off they go, this doughty pair, through all the hoops that the definitely-not-racist townspeople – how can they be, when they have a Mockingbird Museum in this town where Harper Lee grew up? – can put in their way, past the resistant local sheriff, the flinty local DA and into court and then up through the legal system to the State Supreme Court.

It’s an angry film but a familiar one, so full of stock characters you half expect Rod Steiger to appear any minute. And that’s the film’s big problem.

There are some scenes of genuine shock, like when Stevenson visits Johnny for the first time and is strip-searched on entry by the white prison guards, just so he understands who has the whip hand here. But too often it treads a familiar path.

In real life, of course, it’s this routine different treatment that is outrageous. Out and out racism, the gaming of the system, the loading of the dice, at every stage, in every way, against one colour of person by another, in ways legal and illegal, indict a system professing to offer equality of justice to all. But at the level of drama, we have just seen all this too often before.

In spite of the presence of Foxx, who is always good, it’s Jordan’s film, though Cretton hovers uncertainly over the character of Johnny D, unsure how much story time to give him. Johnny’s will he/won’t he with the electric chair never really carries any… er… spark.

On the way to the final dénouement we do see one man go to the chair, Rob Morgan as the benighted PTSD-suffering Herb being just one of many examples of a great cast (Larson, Rafe Spall, Michael Harding, O’Shea Jackson Jr, Tim Blake Nelson, CJ LeBlanc) just not having enough to do.

It ends on a shocking final statistic. That for every nine people who die on death row, one has been found innocent. We hear it. We just don’t feel it like we should.



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© Steve Morrissey 2021







The Spectacular Now

Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now

 

 

Feeling, looking, sounding like a very dark John Hughes film (Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller period), The Spectacular Now also has in Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley exactly the sort of actors Hughes might have cast – not the prettiest, but the most personable, the most “relatable” as we now say.

 

It’s Teller’s first starring role, after standing out in a series of supporting roles, notably adding a gloss to the comedy 21 & Over that the sub-standard joke writing certainly wasn’t delivering. And at first sight he’s playing a similar kind of character, the bright funny jock. Except this isn’t the successful jock the movies encourage us to pity – because of their muscular lack of sensitivity – but the jock in trouble, the life and soul of the party who simply won’t go home at the end of the night.

 

We meet Teller’s bright, funny, outgoing Sutter right after his blonde, go-getting and hot girlfriend (Brie Larson, blurring on and off a couple of times) has dumped him, for reasons that only gradually become apparent. And in one of cinema’s more unusual meet-cutes, we are introduced to the new girl in the his life, Aimee (Woodley), when she spots him one morning, unconscious drunk on someone’s lawn as she is delivering newspapers.

 

So here he is, a suburban high school legend whose catchphrase is “we are the party”, and here’s her, an academic, optimistic but fragile flower bowled over when his thanks for rousing him off the turf morphs into something that looks faintly, possibly, like a cool ardour.

 

Maybe it’s Sutter’s permanent tipsiness, we don’t know, but this strange meeting and the even stranger hooking up of these two over the following weeks works because we never quite know how serious he is about her. Is he just spinning the wheels until Her Hotness returns? Is Aimee going to be OK? More existentially, is Sutter?

 

After those jokey-jock supporting roles that he could easily have become too associated with (see Seann William Scott and Stifler), the eye-opener is Teller, who has the wryness and intelligence of a young Bill Murray. Woodley we already know from a bunch of TV and The Descendants, and she’s even better than him – watch out for the multi-layered look she gives Teller at the end of the film and start counting down the days till she wins an Oscar.

 

Director James Ponsoldt gives his actors plenty of freedom, and in scenes relying heavily on long, though not ostentatiously long, takes they repay the confidence with moments of interaction that look so right that you’d swear they were improvised. It’s emotional tightrope walking – at parties, at the pool, at school, out on the street, particularly in the bedroom where one of the most tender and believable love-making scenes plays out. Yes, I thought, that is how it is the first time.

 

Ponsoldt and co keep us hanging over the will they/won’t they precipice. And complementing this through-the-fingers romance is the sense that Sutter is out of control to an extent even he isn’t aware of, and that Aimee is a precious creature who needs to be protected from him but who, bright girl, might have her own not entirely selfless agenda.

 

I could do without Sutter’s backstory and the stuff including the search for his father, not because Kyle Chandler isn’t great as the jock’s good-old-boy drunken feckless dad but because we don’t need telling there’s something lurking in the woodshed. By this point Sutter has been berated by and fallen foul of very male authority figure in the film – teacher, boss, what have you – so we kind of know, we know.

 

So there’s an occasional overrun here, an emotional handbrake turn there, and now and again the plot gabbles on just a touch too conveniently, for the purposes of the film rather than its characters.

 

But as the band Phosphorescent’s Song for Zula echoes over the closing credits, its yearning, hopeful U2/Simple Minds vibe is a reminder that this too is how John Hughes used to do it, in the days when John Cusack would hold up a boombox to a sweetheart’s window.

I know that was Cameron Crowe directing Say Anything, but it’s the same achey-breaky thing.

 

 

 

The Spectacular Now – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015