A Time to Kill (1996)
We don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!
Capsule: In a sweaty Mississippi town
young white men rape and nearly murder a ten-year-
old black girl. The girl's father takes justice
into his own hands and murders the two men in the
town courthouse. The resulting trial and its
resulting racial tensions touch everybody in the
town. The film based on John Grisham's first novel
spreads its attentions over a large number of
characters, many played by familiar actors.
Economically, it develops only a few, but it gives
a many-sided look at a town in turmoil.
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4)
John Grisham's first novel is also (reportedly) his most serious. It makes his most interesting film adaptation to date. That is in large part because it is a serious story, looking at racial tension rather than being a throwaway thriller. It makes the most satisfying of his films, if slightly over-polished and simplistic. Rather than telling one complex story, it jumps around showing a broad collection of characters, few of whom get much development but many of whom get nice rounded stories that reach conclusions. None of the individual subplots is very original or interesting, but the total is more than the some of its parts. Like a narrative mural we get a large picture made of many smaller stories of what happens during a trial and the resulting clash of townspeople at both ends of the political spectrum.
The setting is Canton, Mississippi, with its mix of small town and rural people. As the film opens we see two white men in their early twenties looking for trouble and finding it by raping and very nearly murdering a ten-year-old black girl. Unexpectedly, the girl lives and within hours the two men are behind bars. But the girl's father, Carl Lee Hailey (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is filled with rage and fear of the very real possibility that the men could end up not being punished for their crime. In a rage he hides himself in the town courthouse and the next morning as the men are being walked through he takes justice into his own hands and guns down the two men, accidentally also crippling a deputy escorting the men. For his defense he chooses a local white lawyer and acquaintance Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), to whom Hailey had hinted the day before that he might be planning to murder the rapists. Brigance decides to use defense of temporary insanity, though it is relatively obvious that the killing was an angry act of revenge but not insanity. Through Brigance we meet his daughter and his wife (Ashley Judd) who is reluctant to have her husband take the emotionally-charged case. We also meet Brigance's old law professor (Donald Sutherland), now disbarred and enjoying a drunken retirement. Kevin Spacey plays an ambitious and tricky prosecutor wanting to ride the case to bigger things, and Patrick McGoohan plays the aptly-named Judge Noose. Most unlikely seeming, is the arrival of a brilliant, attractive law student, Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock) anxious to bull her way onto the defense team with an impressive arsenal of legal knowledge. But the trial also brings a revival of the dormant Ku Klux Klan threatening everybody on the defense team.
Director Joel Schumacher's strong suit has us usually been setting and mood. This was certainly the case with his brooding Gothic medical school in Flatliners and his oversized but under-thought Batman Forever. His Mississippi town is less exaggerated, but little details seem to be intentionally carried a bit too far. Housewife Ashley Judd looks to be laminated in sweat, as if she was sprayed with Pam, but only from the neck down and no other character is sweating nearly so profusely. As the Klan walks into town a plate glass window reflects them as three times their height--Schumacher's visual sense often plays with size--and far more intimidating than they actually are. Peter Menzies, Jr., gives the film's photography a somewhat more subdued feel than previous Schumacher films, but the director's style is still there.
A Time to Kill has been compared to Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird and naturally it falls considerably short of that film. But the two films are related only in subject matter. I would be more likely to compare A Time to Kill to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing in its breadth rather than depth view of the people affected by the trial. This film is really not moving and perhaps not even greatly intelligent in the way that To Kill a Mockingbird was, but it gives a feel for Southern politics and law better than other Grisham films and it tells its story engrossingly. I give it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.