Double feature: Mark Burger reviews ‘Just Mercy,’ ‘Three Christs’
Alabama slammer: Jamie Foxx seeks Just Mercy
Its obvious good intentions notwithstanding, Just Mercy comes dangerously close to being a bad film. This fact-based legal drama, depicting a Death Row inmate’s struggle to prove his innocence, spells out its message against capital punishment, usually in capital letters.
Well-made but obvious, the film dramatizes the plight of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), a black man convicted of murdering a white teenager in Alabama in 1986. It’s obvious from the outset, however, that he was railroaded, even if the film all but ignores the (still unsolved) murder, about which little is disclosed. Besides, one issue is all this film can handle.
McMillan is the pivot of the story, but not the pivotal character. That would be Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), an executive producer and author of the best-seller upon which this film is based. Stevenson is an appropriately outraged Harvard law student who takes up McMillan’s case on behalf of the Equal Justice Initiative, the very laudable organization (based in Montgomery) that has successfully lobbied to re-try cases of wrongfully convicted prisoners.
Jordan, also a producer, is a magnetic actor, but the character of Stevenson as presented here is (no pun intended) colorless. He’s the quintessential screen idealist, initially oblivious to the latent – and blatant – racism he’s about to face, a learning curve that, naturally, further fuels his determination.
Too often, co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton falls back on formulaic trappings, including the use of soaring gospel numbers during ostensibly important moments in the narrative. Where have we heard that before?
The black characters all suffer nobly, the white characters (or at least the majority) are either racist or corrupt and often both. In one scene, Stevenson confronts the smug prosecutor (Rafe Spall) and the even more smug sheriff (Michael Harding), who accuses him of perceiving them as corrupt racists. Since that’s all we’ve seen from these characters, he’s simply restating the obvious. Again.
Brie Larson, handling a Southern accent reasonably well, plays legal assistant Eva Ansley, Bryan’s stalwart legal assistant. Eva has a husband and child, but they disappear quickly, all the better to provide Bryan a shoulder to lean on and the appropriate platitudes to encourage him.
Just Mercy is a relevant and timely film, but unfortunately, it’s not a particularly good film.
Mysteries of faith and the human mind
Milton Rokeach’s 1964 best-seller The Three Christs of Ypsilanti has at long last come to the big screen, although it might have been better suited to the small one.
The film stars Richard Gere as Dr. Alan Stone, who works at the Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, and becomes fascinated by three schizophrenic patients (Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, and Bradley Whitford) who each claim to be Jesus Christ. Stone’s fascination isn’t immediately evident to the viewer, but it does propel the narrative forward.
Gere’s Dr. Stone is a prototypical idealist (see Just Mercy, above), yet he doesn’t always make the right decisions and sometimes makes wrong ones. His compassion, clearly evident in Gere’s portrayal, doesn’t make him infallible, which adds some drama to the proceedings.
Naturally, there is opposition to Stone’s unorthodox methods, personified by Dr. Orbus (Kevin Pollak), whose general prescription is usually electroshock therapy. Yes, it’s the “unctuous bureaucrat” role, but Pollak gives it a bit extra, as do most of the actors.
Occasionally overlong and overwrought, the film works best when it focuses exclusively on Stone and the patients. There’s a brief allusion to Stone’s wife (Julianna Margulies) having a drinking problem, which could easily have been excised. It simply has no bearing on the main thrust of the story.
The roles of the “three Christs” offer Dinklage, Goggins, and Whitford the opportunity that many actors dream of because there are no boundaries, no limits. There’s the inherent risk that they’ll play it too far and wide, but each actor brings a humanity and a humor to their volatile, but always vulnerable, characters. It’s hard not to be moved by their individual and collective work here.
Nice support is provided by James Monroe Iglehart as a faithful orderly and Charlotte Hope (strongly resembling Amy Adams here) as Stone’s research assistant, as well as Stephen Root, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and the ever-formidable Jane Alexander.
Oddly enough, Three Christs was completed in 2017 – indeed, Alexander discussed the film with me when she attended that year’s RiverRun International Film Festival – but is only surfacing now. It’s hardly a perfect film, but it’s not a bad one, either. The performances alone are well worth a look.
– Three Christs opens Friday