Connect with us

Movie Reviews

A Time To Kill



Released: September 13th 1996 (UK)

Director: Joel Schumacher

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock

Certificate: 15 (UK)

Reviewer: Patrick Campbell

In the 1990s – particularly the earlier half of the decade – it began to feel like you could never avoid John Grisham. The lawyer turned author was a prolific and successful writer, churning out bestselling novels which soon found themselves dramatised on the big screen. From ‘The Firm’ to ‘The Pelican Brief’, ‘The Client’ to ‘The Chamber’, Grisham utilised his legal expertise to create stories which often resulted in a tense courtroom showdown. The film ‘A Time to Kill’ (1996) – based on Grisham’s novel of the same name – is no different.

The film begins with two drunken rednecks, their battered truck complete with Confederate flag squealing and hurtling its way through the black community of a small Mississippi town. After stocking up on beer, they find a young black girl walking along a dirt track, alone, carrying a bag of groceries back to her family. The two yokels rape her, attack her, and leave her for dead. She is 10 years old.

The men don’t attempt to cover up their crime, and they are soon caught. What punishment were they due to receive? We will never know, but the unspoken and unwritten “Deep South” rules tell us that it wouldn’t have been as severe as the punishment handed out if they were black men, if she was a white girl. The two men are on the way to their court hearing when the girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L Jackson), decides that the justice he deems appropriate will have to be dished out by his own hands. He guns them down – accidentally harming a police officer in the process – and then goes home to wait for his arrest with patience and dignity. As he explains later on in the movie, he’s sorry for the parents of the men, but he’s not sorry for what he did. Hailey shuns a black legal team provided for him by the NAACP, and instead gambles by hiring the young, white lawyer Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) to represent him in court against the maverick local DA (Kevin Spacey). In a town divided and burdened by the on-going fight between the black community and the racist white Southerners, Hailey’s decision is a bold one. A black man with a black lawyer doesn’t stand a chance against an all-white jury. Brigance is his only hope.

‘A Time to Kill’ is a curious film. By its very nature, the story makes the audience ask themselves questions. Were Hailey’s actions justifiable? Is an illegal act necessarily a wrong one? If he killed, should he in turn be killed? Sadly however, the film seems to take a conscious decision not to tackle these problems in depth. Instead, the narrative is set up as simply “good versus bad” – Hailey and Brigance are the good guys who have to work together to fight prejudice, the slimy and unpleasant DA Rufus Buckley the bad guy. All of those interesting morality questions that could have been posed are shunned the moment Brigance tries to get Hailey freed on a “temporary insanity” technicality, and it does reflect badly on the film.

Nevertheless, ‘A Time to Kill’ does have its strengths, particularly in regards to the acting on show. The film boasts a stellar cast. Alongside the stars previously mentioned, A-Listers such as Sandra Bullock and (the underused) Donald Sutherland are on hand to add depth to the movie, as do noted performers such as Patrick McGoohan, Kiefer Sutherland and Ashley Judd. The story moves at a good pace, the direction provided by Joel Schumacher is polished, the attention to detail is excellent. It is a good film – a film certainly worth watching – but one which could and really should have been better.

Just For You