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Film Title

A Time to Kill


Joel Schumacher


  • Matthew McConaughey as Jake Brigance
  • Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee Hailey
  • Sandra Bullock as Ellen Roark
  • Kevin Spacey as Rufus Buckley
  • Oliver Platt as Harry Rex Vonner
  • Kiefer Sutherland as Freddie Lee Cobb
  • Donald Sutherland as Lucien Wilbanks
  • Ashley Judd as Carla Brigance
  • Brenda Fricker as Ethel Twitty
  • Charles S. Dutton as Sheriff Ozzie Walls
  • Chris Cooper as Dwayne Looney
  • Patrick McGoohan as Judge Omar Noose

An incendiary and well mounted adaptation of the John Grisham legal/courtroom drama, A Time to Kill ensures that the moral and ethical debates come through strong, thanks to the story, script and cast.

In the town of Canton, Mississippi, a 10-year-old black girl by the name of Tonya Hailey is walking home after getting groceries from the local store. Suddenly, she is targeted by two sneering and utterly vile rednecks who violently rape and attempt to kill her by hanging. a-time-to-kill-movie-posterTonya survives, but the damage to her has been done, which sends shock waves through the community. Tonya’s father Carl Lee is devastated when he discovers what has happened to his little girl and knowing that due to the racism that pervades the town and that the two men may get a light sentence, decides to take matters into his own hands. He responds by gunning down both men on their way to trial, in front of over a dozen witnesses. Arrested, Carl Lee contacts young and idealistic lawyer Jake Brigance to represent him. Jake had previously helped Carl Lee’s brother in the past and feels he must represent him; mainly because he was aware that Carl Lee might have gone through with his retribution after talking with him earlier. Jake is warned that this case will be dangerous and because he doesn’t have that much experience, he is bright and wants to help. Hurdles and stumbling blocks come up as the manipulative district attorney and prosecutor Rufus Buckley, who has his eye on office, decides to seek the death penalty and manages to stir the situation up. jake-and-carl-lee-a-time-to-killThe climate of racism and clashing opposition makes the whole thing a powder keg as Jake finds his life in danger, as well as those closest to him being threatened by a resurgent faction of the Ku Klux Klan, brought out by one of the brothers of the men slain by Carl Lee. Yet with all the hostility and violence being thrown his way, Jake refuses to back down and his resolve is strengthened as he is soon in the courtroom representing his client in a case that could spark even more eruptions of unrest and horror for everyone. He is aided by the young law student Ellen Roark, who is a know it all but very passionate and good friend plus occasional divorce lawyer cynical Harry Rex Vonner. Yet getting a fair trial is going to be anything but easy as tensions threaten to explode.

Joel Schumacher impeccably displays a flair for the material; making it both extremely gripping and equally as powerful in what it brings to the table. A Time to Kill raises many moral questions in a series of ways that delve into the quagmire of what is deemed right and wrong, and how there is a difficult grey area in between. There are those that will say that the movie is more in favour of one view than the other, but even if that is true, A Time to Kill deserves credit for presenting issues like justice, fairness and racism with many degrees of thought-provoking effectiveness. I believe that the film tries to show both sides of things. While Carl Lee did kill the men who raped his daughter, you can understand many of the reasons why he did it. matthew-mcconaughey-and-sandra-bullockA Time to Kill asks us to consider what we would do in that situation, which allows the film to get under the skin deeply. The difficulty in the topic of morality and justice is best summed up by a speech given by Donald Sutherland’s character. He says, “If you win this case, justice will prevail, and if you lose, justice will also prevail”, which perfectly and simply reflects the complex issue at hand. The legal nature of A Time to Kill is pretty compelling to watch as the ethics of lawyers and the inevitable courtroom examinations of whether someone is guilty are put under the spotlight. The build up to the courtroom is equally as excellent, showing just how dangerous a case of this magnitude can be in a climate of uncertainty and intolerance. Yet when the courtroom drama hits, the fireworks really start to occur. The testimonies and confrontations have rippling consequences that influence the society around them, that is already at boiling point on account of racism and violence. The dignified and quick-moving script makes the legal terminology easy to digest, yet doesn’t forget the battle going on between many things within the fabric of the story. And speaking of quick-moving, A Time to Kill runs for two and a half hours, yet interest is kept in check and held throughout most of it. Sure some moments could have been expanded on, but the atmosphere and climate of the piece brings immediate attention and confronting intent to the viewer, that will get them to look at the ethics of the trial intensely. The music provided by Elliot Goldenthal is dynamic and matches the escalating emotions and tensions within the story.

A Time to Kill was the movie that really launched Matthew McConaughey to stardom and it isn’t difficult to see why. matthew-mcconaughey-a-time-to-killWith his charming yet astute persona, he naturally plays Jake as a man put through the difficulties of the case, yet spurned on by what he sees as just cause. The gravity of the situation dawns on him after realising how complex events will turn out, but he won’t give up on this case and soldiers through it with unwavering determination. McConaughey is the right fit for the part and his closing speech in the film is powerful stuff that shows just what an excellent actor he is. Samuel L. Jackson is particularly memorable as the man on trial, evoking the self-possessed man whose temper was pushed to the edge by the brutality his daughter endured. Jackson’s work is very subtle and while he has two scenes of outburst( the first when he kills the men and the second in court) he is largely a modulated presence, though behind his eyes the fury and hurt is there as clear as day. samuel-l-jackson-a-time-to-killThis performance impressed me as I usually think of Jackson as manic and loud, yet he delivered a finely tuned performance as the avenging Carl Lee that reveals another side to him. We have Sandra Bullock portraying the over-eager and brainy Ellen with a good mix of sass and smarts, while Kevin Spacey can be discovered slithering his way across the screen, inhabiting the egotistical and ambitious prosecutor. Oliver Platt provides some levity from the intense drama in the sidekick role of being a cynical wise ass with questionable morals, yet also with surprising depth to match. Kiefer Sutherland is appropriately nasty and shocking, starring as the angered brother of one of the slain who riles up the Klan once more and delights in causing horror to all in order to get what he perceives as his own justice. His father Donald also makes a hell of a mark, exuding the wily silver fox persona ideal for his part of Jake’s former mentor, who despite being disbarred from court, manages to aid his young charge. It is interesting to note that Donald and Kiefer never share a scene in the film. Ashley Judd and Brenda Fricker have less to do in the film, but each is good in their respective roles of concerned wife and long-serving secretary. In smaller roles, Charles S. Dutton, Chris Cooper and Patrick McGoohan add their expertise to various people involved in the case and make the most of the time they get to be shown.

A Time to Kill emerges as an engaging crime drama that explores culpability, legality and racism in a powerful way, benefiting from confident direction and a star-studded cast.