Although it has its share of implausibilities, “A Time To Kill” is generally the most satisfying of the John Grisham screen adaptations to date. An absorbing tale of racial tensions as seen through the prism of a highly controversial murder case, this sweaty Southern courtroom drama is well served by a stellar cast that, along with the notably tony production values, puts a classy stamp on the rather contrived melodramatic proceedings. As all the previous Grisham entries have grossed roughly $ 100 million or better, it would be surprising if Warner Bros. couldn’t propel this one to the same upscale commercial neighborhood.
With its “To Kill a Mockingbird” setup of an earnest white lawyer defending a black man of a crime that’s a particular affront to rednecks, pic stokes the political and emotional coals in ways calculated to appeal to middle-of-the-road and liberal humanist whites as well as to blacks, whichcould translate into sizable crossover business.
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Just as much of a synthetic fabrication as other Grisham yarns, this one nonetheless emerges as more substantial due to the social fabric and unavoidably contentious legal issues at its core, as well as its colorful cast of characters.
Blood-boiling opening has two bad ol’ boys grabbing a 10-year-old black girl off a country road, tying her up, and beating and raping her within an inch of her life. The white trash perpetrators are easily apprehended, but the girl’s infuriated father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), can’t restrain himself and guns down the goons as they are being led through the county courthouse, blowing away the knee of an innocent deputy (Chris Cooper) in the process.
To whom should Hailey turn for his defense but to another of Grisham’s patented down-and-out Southern lawyers, in this case young, good-looking Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), who previously got Hailey’s brother off on a charge. With little going for him other than the moral support of his disbarred and drunken former law professor (Donald Sutherland), secretary (Brenda Fricker) and lawyer buddy (Oliver Platt), Brigance takes on the murder case and begins to get a taste of what he’s up against when he’s threatened with dire personal consequences if his defense is successful.
Indeed, the case inspires a revival of the largely dormant Ku Klux Klan in Canton, Miss., a movement led by the brother (Kiefer Sutherland) of one of the murdered men. As the trial approaches, the Klan becomes increasingly brazen, burning a cross in front of Brigance’s house and generally making modern Canton look like the South in pre-civil rights days.
Arriving from left field, both dramatically and politically, is perky rich girl law student Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), who keeps pestering Brigance to let her pitch in with the defense. His persistent refusals unfortunately point up one of the story’s biggest weak points, as Brigance would seem to need all the help he can get.
In one of the tale’s more interesting passages, the NAACP and the local black minister try to dump Brigance by imposing some high-powered legal representation , but the shrewd Hailey resists the move and sticks with his man. When his wife (Ashley Judd) and daughter conveniently leave town, Brigance has a change of heart and welcomes the assistance of the foxy Northerner with the black Porsche convertible, which throws a measure of sexual tension into the mix as well.
The trial itself is intense and provides numerous surprises and twists. With the crafty, ambitious Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey) leading the prosecution and an all-white jury hearing the case, Hailey would seem to be as good as dead. Despite some vital help from Roark, it all comes down to Brigance, in his summation, to convince the jurors that, perhaps, if they had been in Hailey’s shoes, they might have done the same thing.
As originated by Grisham and adapted by Akiva Goldsman, this is a story of elemental emotional and legal issues splashed across a large canvas, and director Joel Schumacher has done a solid job of keeping the many components in focus and balance. The picture is handsomely, even elegantly made, conspicuously well shot by Peter Menzies Jr. and scored with unusual subtlety and suppleness by Elliot Goldenthal.
Anointed for stardom by Schumacher and Grisham, the tall, blond, lanky McConaughey possesses traditional movie-star good looks and is up to the varied demands of the central role. At the same time, there are some built-in liabilities with the part, not only his puzzling passivity in building his case but some hackneyed scenes with his wife, the problems with which are no fault of the actors.
Jackson has the most potent dramatic opportunities and makes the most of them in the film’s most riveting performance. His careful, deliberate readings automatically heighten attention to what he’s saying, and his blunt speech about race relations and the law to his attorney the night before the latter’s summation is a high point.
Although she receives top billing, Bullock plays a somewhat peripheral character who hovers around the edges of the central events until rather late in the game. All the same, she is very fetching as a young woman who knows her worth and proves it time and again.
Supporting cast provides a vast amount of authority, amusement and sheer professionalism, especially Spacey as the slick prosecutor, Donald Sutherland as Brigance’s dissolute mentor and Patrick McGoohan as the old-school presiding judge. Chris Cooper delivers a brief but exceptionally vivid turn as the injured deputy, while M. Emmet Walsh is curiously unbilled for his appearance as a key trial witness.
All tech contributions are top-drawer.