Millennials Talk Cinema: ‘Underwater,’ ‘Just Mercy’ and ‘1917’
‘JUST MERCY’ (Rated PG-13)
“Just Mercy” is based on true events surrounding real-life lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and his client Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), a wrongfully convicted man facing the electric chair in Alabama. The script is built around this real court case - involving coerced testimony and mountains of buried or ignored evidence - but is fleshed out with small fictionalizations here or there.
I felt chills almost instantly.
Within the first 10 minutes, “Just Mercy” makes it abundantly clear it won’t be skirting around issues or mincing its words. The direction isn’t heavily stylized, opting for a direct, steady visual approach without augmentation to give the story center stage. The power is in the candidness of the presentation, the honesty of the performances, the passion of the people behind the production, and the unflinching portrayal of the many heavily ingrained cultural obstacles and inequities shackled to incarcerated black people, their families, and the black community as a whole.
“You’re guilty the moment your born,” says McMillan to Stevenson during their first meeting, a phrase that personifies the scope and insidious nature of systemic racism. It illustrates that his condemnation exists outside the courtroom, out of reach of the ‘luxury’ of truth - the system wants him to be guilty, and McMillan’s case encompasses the lengths to which people and communities go to ensure that conviction is upheld.
This comes on the heels of a scene where another incarcerated man, Henry Davis (J. Alphonse Nicholson) is told he isn’t at risk of execution, at least not “anytime within the next year.” Nicholson shines in this short exchange, his eyes running a gamut of conflicted emotions - fear, bitter anger, and finally painful relief as Davis states it’s “the best news he’s had in a while.”
This may be a relatively small scene, but it really sets the tone for the movie, and Nicholson’s raw, internal performance was instantly engraved in my mind.
Though ‘Just Mercy’ is a period piece spanning the late ’80s and early ’90s, the justice system and its prejudicial, predatory practices towards black people hasn’t aged a day, appearing as timely and familiar as if it had been set in 2020. Swap the fashions and set pieces for iPhones and laptops and you wouldn’t know the difference.
The performances are deeply internalized and powerful, each actor delivering utter sincerity in each scene. “Just Mercy” is an intimate portrayal of the spiderweb of fractures that exist to this day in the American criminal justice system, specifically in regards to “the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” The film illustrates the rhetoric that enables the swallowing of real people into an ever hungry system, and the mountain of barriers that keep those same people from fair support, resources, representation, and advocacy.
“Just Mercy” is brilliant and gripping.
It is an absolute must see.
‘UNDERWATER’ (Rated PG-13)
From its opening scene, “Underwater” is tense and engaging. It’s incredibly plot driven, with a breakneck pace, but also manages to deliver very likable, relatable characters. I cared whether Norah (Kristen Stewart) and her motley crew were going to make it to the surface, and that kept me engaged, just as much as the claustrophobic creepiness of this deep sea dive.
Stewart is great as Norah, strong and capable, believable both in the action sequences and emotional moments. The opening 15 or so minutes, almost solely featuring her and the wonderful Mamadou Athie (who really should be in all the things, he’s so good), got me totally invested in what would happen next.
On occasion, this movie uses the (cheating) technique of showing you a character in mortal peril, then cutting away and returning to them with no idea how they survived. This works much better here, in the murky darkness of the sea floor, than it might in a clearer surrounding, and the point of view is just tight enough in these moments that the character’s disorientation overwhelmed the break in my suspension of disbelief.
That is generally the case here. I was willing to let “Underwater” hand wave a plot device, because they’d earned that suspension of disbelief, and the film’s occasional rocky moments were outweighed by the tense but enjoyable ones.
If you are in the mood for a fast-paced action-horror flick, definitely check out “Underwater.”