“Just Mercy” (2020)–“It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”

A powerful true story about the 1989 founding of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), based upon Bryan Stevenson’s  2014 bestseller of the same name, Just Mercy.    EJI, located in Montgomery, Alabama –and situated near the Museum of Peace and Justice (a Stevenson project focusing on the US history of lynching and slavery)–  is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States.  EIJ challenges racial and economic injustice, protects basic human rights for the most vulnerable and shines a spotlight on structural racism.  Just Mercy reveals a justice system that “treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.” Stevenson underscores the faith in the better side of human nature:  “We are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done,”  he maintains.

In an opening scene, Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx of “Ray”), is stopped by a posse of police determined not only to arrest him for the murder of an 18-year old white woman but also to ensure he is found guilty.  McMillian is Bryan Stevenson’s first client. Freshly graduated from Harvard law, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan of “Creed”), is committed to giving back to his community. He has made it his mission to defend those on death row he feels were wrongfully convicted.  (Additionally, Alabama is the only state in the country not to assign legal representation to prisoners on death row who wish to appeal their sentences.)  

Hopeful at first that reason,  evidentiary documents and witnesses will result in justice, Stevenson soon realizes that he was naive. At first he is  unaware of the risks he is taking and of the threat he represents as  an elite educated powerhouse of a young Black attorney.  He quickly learns how  to maneuver in a historically Jim Crow state, despite being  viewed exclusively as another Black man to be denied the power that the legal system  provides to attorneys.   Ignoring evidence of McMillian’s innocence, the county prosecutor and police sheriff have other motivations.

Feeling more  like a true-crime drama rather than a memoir, Just Mercy is both disturbing and hopeful.  A staggering set of performances by both Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx give this film its heft.    The undoing of mass incarceration is another matter.

Note:  Bryan Stevenson, a MacArthur Grant recipient dedicated to undoing mass incarceration in the US, asserts that mass incarceration is the devolution of the justice system rooted in over four hundred years of lynching and kangaroo courts in American society.  For other reviews on this theme,  see: “Scottsboro–The Inexcusable” (July 10, 2012);  “Slavery By Another Name” (September 18, 2016); and “13“–An Unlucky Number (April 24, 2017).

“Run”–Walking Is Not An Option

Run is an intense and suspenseful thriller starring the master at horror and diabolical characters:  Sarah Paulson.  Portraying Diane, the mother of Chloe, a disabled seventeen-year-old girl (newcomer Kiera Allen, who is also wheelchair-bound in real life), has chosen to raise her daughter at home, in a rural town outside Seattle. 

Mother and daughter seem to be very close.  They begin each day  settled into a cozy routine of  daily lessons in physics or American lit,  relaxing meals around the kitchen table, an occasional movie in town.  But Chloe’s days also include hoisting herself into her wheelchair, spitting up in the  toilet, massaging her skin with prescription creams, and swallowing a battery of prescription medicines.   Born with severe complications (arrhythmia, hemochromatosis, asthma, diabetes, and paralysis in her legs),  Chloe needs a lot of care that Diane provides diligently and lovingly, almost obsessively.  Typical of any teenager, Chloe is looking forward to life away from home at the University of Washington.  She waits every day for delivery of a letter of admissions.  

And then the thriller ramps up.  For this review I cannot say more or risk spoiler alerts and ruining the experience for some viewers.  Don’t watch the trailer ahead of time!  {It is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Dhh7q9Us5c)

Both main characters’  worlds begin to unravel in terrifying ways and the viewer soon realizes that whatever has just happened, the worst is yet to happen.

The buildup is excellent.   Run keeps the audience so tightly wound, some viewers may feel one step away from panic mode and hyperventilation.  Both leading actors–Allen and Paulson– are noteworthy  in succeeding to ratchet the suspense. 

In a lean 90 minutes, the viewer almost wants the experience to be over  because Run is so nerve-wracking, and you need to take a breath.  Hang in there!  There’s no way you should stop watching, even if you technically could end your anxiety by simply reaching for the remote!

The ending is well-worth the tension and– for this reviewer– is absolutely perfect!   

Availability:  Hulu as of November 20; originally scheduled for Mother’s Day (!)

Note: Casting newcomer Kiera Allen  marks the first time an actual wheelchair user has played a lead role in a major thriller.  

“The Undoing”–Deeds Undone

This HBO original mini-series, The Undoingis  a police procedural based upon the novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz. 

We observe the daily life of a highly successful New York therapist, Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman), a specialist in marriage counseling, as well her husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), a successful  pediatric oncologist. Their teenage son Henry attends an elite private school which receives generous donations from Grace’s father (Donald Sutherland).  At a school fundraiser Grace learns more about a beautiful woman Elena  (newcomer Matilda De Angelis), who turns up brutally murdered the next day. Elena’s son, whose life was saved by Jonathan, attends the same elite school.  The police soon consider Jonathan their primary suspect and the case subsequently goes to trial with Grace’s dad begrudgingly paying for the best criminal defense lawyer in Manhattan. 

When Jonathan takes the stand, he charms with his admission of his flaws and lies, but declares his innocence because he truly loved Elena. Grace is left crushed by his confession of love for the murdered victim. She must decide whether to walk away from life with Jonathan, and create another for her son and herself. Grace struggles with Henry’s obvious grief over their estrangement and the possibility of a murder conviction for his father.  Can their family survive this?  Should they try to remain a family?  Or will there be an inevitable undoing, a wind that threatens to unsettle everything?

There are many exceptional red herrings with so many suspects with motive.  Hints that the cheerful bright exterior of this “one-percenter” couple didn’t really “have it all” seemed to crescendo into a climax involving Grace’s father, her son, her best friend, Elena’s husband, and even Grace.

The ending was disappointing for this viewer, and casts a shadow on the preceding episodes which were often well-done electrifying family drama.  Intergenerational conflict– and a foreboding that ultimately didn’t materialize at all –were notable.  While many viewers judge an entire drama by the ending, and I understand this, The Undoing is still very much worth watching to see excellent performances by both Kidman and Grant, as well as the supporting cast.  Imagine another ending for an unconditional A+

Availability: HBO Max

“Retribution”–Karma is a Beast

Retribution  miniseries (Netflix)

Retribution ( a 2016 BBC production originally titled “One of Us”) opens with a horrific double murder, which will tear apart the lives of two families, the Douglases and the Elliots.  They are friends who live side-by-side in the isolated Scotland Highlands hamlet of Braeston.  The atmospherically remote Scottish scenery is  reminiscent of Nordic noir landscapes. 

Events soon take an even more brutal turn when a badly injured man arrives at the Douglas family’s doorstep after his car careens off the road – a man who they soon realize, after nursing his wounds,  is the killer of their adult son and daughter.  The aftermath of the double murder and the discovery of the murderer among them wreaks havoc over the course of the drama for both the Douglases and the Elliots.

Each character in Retribution has his or her own layered, dark backstory.  There are so many revelations and so many characters that the viewer ends up struggling with who is related to whom, and who has inflicted pain and who has suffered.  The characters,  vividly drawn,  are vulnerable and deeply flawed.  Almost everyone, whether a main character or a minor one, has some deep dark secret that propels them to immoral behavior.   Not one person is “normal” or even “likable”, with few exceptions.

Everyone in both families has means, motive and opportunity, resulting in a convoluted whodunit whose perpetrator is not easily guessed until the final episode.

Retribution tightens the tension for the viewer with each episode, and close attention is essential.   What backstory belongs to which character and are that character’s secrets sufficient motive for murder?  This film is unusual in its portrayal of family and what they will and won’t do for each other.  They all seek to protect themselves and those they are related to, even when they no longer love them.

Dynamite story but requiring more than the usual effort to solve the murders.

Availability:  Netflix streaming.  Subtitled captions for the deaf and hearing impaired are recommended, due to the strong Scottish brogue.