A Time To Kill (1996) – Morally Dubious Manipulation from Schumacher & Co…

There are plenty of things that wind me up about A Time to Kill, and the first is that title.

Not because it’s pretty meaningless, but because it makes it sound like a second-rate Bond movie, rather than a lusty courtroom melodrama set in the Deep South.  So fans of the John Grisham novel approaching the film for the first time will be pleased to find hotshot lawyer Jack Brigance played by Matthew McConaughey and not by Roger Moore.  (Although in my parallel universe-cinema, that casting choice sounds oddly intriguing…)

Joel Schumacher’s adaptation takes a racially charged potboiler and turns it into two and a half hours of sexy, gripping, salaciously enjoyable entertainment.

The movie opens with the brutal beating and rape of a ten year old black girl by two drunken rednecks.  The grieving father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L Jackson), infuriated that the rapists might go free, takes the law into his own hands and guns the two men down on the courtroom steps.

Hailey hires up-and-coming lawyer Jack Brigance to defend him in his seemingly unwinnable case.  Up against racial prejudice and the ruthless, ambitious DA Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey), Brigance’s job isn’t made any easier by lack of funds or staff, or the newly-formed chapter of the KKK planting bombs under his house or burning crosses in his front garden.

Brigance is aided by seedy divorce lawyer, Harry Rex Vonner (Oliver Platt); a perky and brilliant law student, Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock); and his drunken, disbarred mentor, Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland).

A Time to Kill is like a Who’s Who of people who were big in the Nineties.  Spacey hot off the back of Seven and The Usual Suspects; Jackson huge after Pulp Fiction; Bullock still a big box office draw after Speed and While You Were Sleeping.

Further down the cast list, you’ve got Oliver Platt honing his rotund, garrulous, slightly shady sidekick act as Harry, and Brenda Fricker, still trying to make good Stateside after her Oscar for My Left Foot.  Fricker is the only casting blunder, horribly miscast as Brigance’s devoted, fierce legal secretary.  Donald’s boy Kiefer sneers his way through an underwritten role as one of the rapist’s equally racist brother.

Supporting roles are filled out with a sturdy crew of character actors; Chris Cooper stands out as a Deputy who loses a leg after Carl Lee accidentally shoots him while blowing away the redneck creeps.  Charles S Dutton plays the sheriff; M Emmet Walsh as the defence’s critical witness; Ashley Judd as Brigance’s wife; Patrick McGoohan as the judge; Kurtwood Smith (the baddie from Robocop) as the KKK Grand Dragon – even if you’re not paying attention to the story, it’s entertaining enough to see all the famous faces popping up.

Amid this Nineties star-studded cast, Matthew McConaughey holds the screen well.  A natural matinee idol, he convinces with his swagger and his innate sense of dignity, although he perhaps gets carried away with the emoting in the final courtroom scenes.  Bullock got top billing, but it’s McConaughey’s movie.

Schumacher lavishes his cast with his usual attention, although it is notable that among the vast gallery of characters, there are only a few roles of any note for black actors.  Carl Lee’s family are left in the background – as Ebert puts it; “Maybe…the movie is interested in white people as characters and black people as atmosphere.”

Schumacher’s Deep South is filled with attractive, privileged white people sensually covered in sweat looking like they want to hump each other, while during working hours trying to defend a double murder case.  I’ve never been to the Deep South and I don’t know what race relations when the film was made, but it feels a little anachronistic – like a 90’s remake of the 60’s.

It is also easy to suspect that it’s a fantasy Deep South, created by white people and populated mainly by white actors, with all the racially charged stuff thrown in for titillation of liberal audiences.

Watching A Time To Kill again made me feel uneasy.  I still enjoyed it as much as I did the first time, but felt far more manipulated.  This is a big, handsome, sultry popcorn courtroom thriller, yet opens with the rape of a child.

I’m not saying all courtroom thrillers need to be harrowing and sombre, but the glossy entertainment that follows the initial heinous crime seemed inappropriate.  It felt as if the crime was chosen specifically to goad audiences into a way of thinking.

Taking a step back, A Time To Kill swims in morally murky waters.  The nature of the crime and how it is portrayed instinctively pushes us to react – “they deserved to die”.

The film assumes it is talking to liberally minded people, and uses the frightening specter of the KKK to ramp up the indignation.  Even the racist rednecks in the movie seem to recognize this as a plot device – “There ain’t been no Klan around here for years.”

Not that racist child rapists deserve any sympathy, of course, but these are the worst kind of racist child rapists.  They are filthy, drunken, knife-wielding, pickup truck-driving, confederate flag-waving scumbags with mullet hair cuts.  Just to make sure the audience don’t take the wrong side.

I don’t want this to sound like I think the racists deserve more of a fair shout.  I just objected to the movie coshing me over the head, bundling me in the boot of a car and driving me to conclusions I would have made anyway.

To make things more uncertain, Carl Lee tells Brigance of his intentions to shoot them – and then pleas not guilty of murder because of insanity.  He guns down the rapist before they enter the courtroom, just to make sure they don’t get let off.

Throughout the case, the all white jury seem to be in favour of upholding the law and sending Carl Lee to his death, but after Brigance’s summation, it is not revealed how the Jury suddenly switch to a not guilty verdict.

This is all very slippery and manipulative, and leads to an interesting game of cut-and-paste.  What if the original crime wasn’t so horrific in most people’s eyes – what if the rednecks had just killed the girl drunk driving?  Would they deserve Carl Lee’s vigilante justice then, and would Carl Lee’s shaky plea of insanity swing the jury?  What if the jury were black, and weren’t swayed by Brigance’s histrionics, and decided to be objective and uphold the law?

There’s lots of conundrums you can play with after watching A Time To Kill, and reading back, this doesn’t seem like a terribly positive review.  However you take your courtroom dramas and whatever your politics, you should still be thoroughly entertained by this film, and will have plenty to chew on afterward if you want to get into it.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 19/05/2012, in A, Drama, Film, Movies, Thriller and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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