A Time to Kill (1996)

14 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I review “A Time to Kill,” I want to state a regular “blog-thought” (if you will). With “A Time to Kill” the next John Grisham film adaptation after “The Client,” I have to wonder—do director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman truly get John Grisham? Or are John Grisham’s novels able to give these otherwise-mediocre-at-best artists the outer limits of material for them to use effectively? I like both “The Client” and “A Time to Kill”—they’re very good adaptations. I dislike more of Schumacher’s and Goldsman’s work separately—with Schumacher, there’s “Batman & Robin,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” among others; with Goldsman, it’s also “Batman & Robin,” as well as “Lost in Space.” But “The Client” and “A Time to Kill,” it’s hard to deny that there is expert direction and good writing within both of them, to me anyway. So I don’t know, maybe they’re better at doing adaptations; maybe Grisham is better suited for them; I don’t know. But there is proof of talent here, in my opinion.

I could do a whole blog entry that isn’t merely a review, going into analysis on why I think “The Client” and “A Time to Kill” work. But for now, I need to review “A Time to Kill,” which is one of the best film adaptations from a John Grisham novel.

“A Time to Kill” is a compelling story with one of the most complicated scenarios that lead to the surface of morality tale. It includes racial tension, deceit, violence, and the hopes for a fair trial. It all begins as a ten-year-old black girl is brutally raped and beaten by two drunken rednecks in a small backwater Mississippi town. The two men are arrested, but the girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), is unsure of what to do. Should he trust the justice system to give them the punishment they deserve, or should he take immediate action now, thinking they’ll get off scot-free? He shares his intentions to an old friend, a local, white, up-and-coming lawyer named Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), who doesn’t quite believe that Carl Lee will murder the two men. But then the next day, Carl Lee does show up with a shotgun, killing both men and severely injuring a cop in the process. Now on trial for murder, Carl Lee chooses Jake as his attorney, his logic being he thinks like a jury would and thus would be an ideal “secret weapon.” The main question here is whether or not a black man can receive a fair trial after murdering two white men, for what they did to his daughter, especially in this time in the South. So Jake, along with his old mentor (Donald Sutherland), a divorce specialist (Oliver Platt), and an energetic (and unpaid) assistant, Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), Jake prepares to go up against the local DA (Kevin Spacey) and help Carl Lee.

There are numerous subplots in “A Time to Kill” that bring the film to just barely pass the two-hour-thirty-minute mark. While some of these work in serving the plot, like the scenes involving the NAACP’s legal defense representatives (led by Joe Seneca) and the plight of Jake’s wife (Ashley Judd) and daughter who are now facing threats because of the case. And there’s also developing the relationship between Jake and Roark so they’ll work together—she offers to help, he gently turns her down repeatedly, she then delivers some helpful leads, and he brings her onboard as an unpaid aide. I’m glad these two don’t develop a romance together; their relationship is purely platonic and work-related. But the one subplot that I’m still quite unsure about, and it is an important one, is the presence of the Ku Klux Klan, led by the brothers of the two men killed by Carl Lee. They threaten the lives of Jake, his family, and his friends. Making the Klan into villainous thugs in this film is prominent, but it feels like it’s going way too far to get the story’s point across. I can’t help but think that the film would be just as effective if a smaller, more moderate group in this small town would represent the “prejudice” roles. I don’t know, but to me, the Klan subplot seems like a bit much.

One subplot I missed was the plight involving Carl Lee’s family. We hardly ever see them after the half-hour mark, and I was wondering how they were reacting to this situation. What is Carl Lee’s wife going through? How is his daughter holding up? What about his other kids? Now that I think about it, with most screen time devoted to white characters (with the exception of Charles S. Dutton as the town sheriff, who is black), are the black characters just here to serve as atmosphere fuel?

John Grisham obviously specializes in characterization in relation to court cases, and “A Time to Kill” is no exception. And the way Joel Schumacher sees it is in great respect to the novel in that it doesn’t go for cheap tricks or insane plot twists to keep the audience invested. There are a few twists, but nothing bizarre. Mainly we just have this controversial trial that searches for answers to the question of whether or not Carl Lee can get a good jury and a fair trial, given what he did. In the end, there is no clear answer. I’m not even sure there can be a clear answer.

The acting in “A Time to Kill” is top-notch. Samuel L. Jackson is excellent as Carl Lee, with a great mix of grief and anger. Sandra Bullock does some of her most appealing acting as Ellen Roark. Kevin Spacey is suitably slimy as the DA, Ashley Judd is convincingly frightened as Jake’s wife, Charles S. Dutton is great as the no-nonsense sheriff, and Donald Sutherland and Oliver Platt deliver strong support as well as comic relief. But what it really comes down to is the performance of Matthew McConaughey as the hero, Jake Brigance. McConaughey is great in this role—he exhibits a powerful presence with his charisma and intensity.

It’s easy to predict the verdict at the end of the story, but “A Time to Kill” is more concerned about how it happens. It produces a good, solid story arc for Jake as he starts out as a rookie lawyer, uses professional tactics to show up the DA, and when all else fails, in a powerful speech near the end, he plays the trial with pure emotion and has the jury truly think about Carl Lee’s situation as if it were happening to them. There’s more to it, but I won’t go into it for the sake of this review. “A Time to Kill” is well-made, powerfully-acted, involving, and thought-provoking. I kind of wish Schumacher and Goldsman made more Grisham adaptations after this.

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