A Time to Kill

1996, R, 145 min. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Starring Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey, Brenda Fricker, Oliver Platt, Charles S. Dutton, Ashley Judd, Patrick Mcgoohan, Donald Sutherland, Kiefer Sutherland, Tonea Stewart, Chris Cooper.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 26, 1996

They sound so very Ecclesiastical… those words, A Time to Kill. To everything there is a season, and to the justifiable homicide defense A Time to Kill is the equivalent of Christmas in July. A Time to Kill, the newest legal thriller based on a John Grisham novel, takes a legal issue soaked in lots of difficult gray matter, tosses in some pointed racial factors that make it clear that American justice is not color blind, and then buttresses the events with the kind of star turns that charge ahead with swoopingly emotional, if not always legal, logic. The movie tells the story of Jake Brigance (McConaughey), a young white lawyer in a small Mississippi town, who chooses to defend Carl Lee Hailey (Jackson), a black mill worker who shoots and kills (on the courthouse steps, no less) the two drunken white rednecks who raped, brutalized, and left his ten-year-old daughter for dead. Furthermore, Carl Lee forewarns Jake of his intentions to kill the men, thus implicating his defense attorney in, at least, the failure to thwart the deed. Surely, one need not be an aggrieved parent in order to understand the selfless vengeance prompting such a crime of passion. But issues of understanding and culpability are wrapped up with larger issues of politics and race, and black and white divisions quickly overshadow the field of gray. To its credit, A Time to Kill allows the debate to snake through the entire movie, engagingly pitting characters and speeches against each other, creating a dramatic forum for ethical debate uncommon in most commercial American films. Still, the debate hardly ever rises above shallow sloganeering and arch rivalries. By the time of Jake's closing arguments, the movie “plays the race card” by subsuming all the “iffier” matters of jurisprudence to his direct and sole appeal to the jurors' racial biases. Director Schumacher (Batman Forever, The Client, St. Elmo's Fire) is becoming a master tactician of this form of sleek entertainment that lulls us into believing that we've witnessed more than we really have. By now, the backstory about the making of A Time to Kill has reached the publicity-overkill stage -- how McConaughey was picked from the obscurity of Dazed and Confused and Boys on the Side to win the plum lead role, and so on. And even though he receives third billing to secondary player Bullock and the ever-scorching Jackson, McConaughey is clearly possessed of star greatness. Schumacher does all he can to amplify McConaughey's star “arrival” by shooting the actor from dynamic angles and with plentiful close-ups. One wishes, however, that Schumacher had paid as much attention to the subtleties of the story. Although A Time to Kill also can boast of its wonderful cast of supporting players (stand-outs include Platt as Jake's comic-relief sidekick, Stewart as Carl Lee's long-suffering wife, and Fricker as Jake's long-suffering secretary), it's McConaughey's commanding performance (or the way scenes between him and the equally camera-friendly Bullock practically eat through the screen) that will make this movie one for the history books.

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More Joel Schumacher Films
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A Time to Kill, Joel Schumacher, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey, Brenda Fricker, Oliver Platt, Charles S. Dutton, Ashley Judd, Patrick Mcgoohan, Donald Sutherland, Kiefer Sutherland, Tonea Stewart, Chris Cooper

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