Of all the many movies made of John Grisham novels I find most to be somewhat lightweight and lacking in punch. Not so for A Time To Kill which is a powerful story of racial tension in a Mississippi town during the mid 1980’s after Carl Lee Halley, a black man, is charged with murder after shooting dead the white rednecks who rape and beat his ten-year-old daughter Tonya. There is a great deal of racist language in the movie particularly the N word, which one can’t write today, let alone say. This is used to positive effect by director Joel Schumacher firstly to highlight racists as being thick as two short planks, and then to ensure the whole audience to a man was in Carl’s corner routing for him to win. Samuel L Jackson, one of the best actors never to win an Oscar, steals the show with his portrayal of the aggrieved father.
To defend the murder charge Carl hires Jake Brigance a young idealistic struggling lawyer. Matthew McConaughey brings his southern drawl to the role of Jake and turns in a solid acting performance, but I could never imagine him playing Shakespeare. Jake had previously represented Carl’s brother successfully. This appears to be why he’s been chosen but Carl knows the jury is sure to be all white and figures only a white lawyer would know what they need to hear in order for him to be acquitted. Jake on the other hand having had his suspicions that Carl intended to kill those who violated his daughter and doing nothing to stop it from happening takes the job to ease his guilty conscience.
The town splits into two protest groups according to race, those wanting Carl to be freed and those calling for the gas chamber. Those demonstrating for his release are lead by the local Baptist minister supported in the background by a civil rights group who are looking to make political capital out of the case. The minister collects money to help Carl’s family but spends it on campaign material instead. Those wanting the death penalty are stirred up by Freddie Lee Cobb, the brother of one of the rapists. With the help of Stump Sisson the Grand Dragon (what parent could name their child Stump?), Cobb sets up a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan with violent intentions. Kiefer Sutherland had this role, that must have gun actor.
There are a number of other supporting roles carried out by high profile actors. One is the smooth talking ambitious prosecuting District Attorney Rufus Buckley who sees the case as a slam-dunk and one that will help him become State Governor. A bread and butter role for the talented Kevin Spacey. Another is the appointed judge, aptly named Omar Noose. He’s what you might call a white-collar racist who fully expects a guilty verdict and gives Jake a hard time during the early days of the trial. I was surprised to see Patrick McGoohan in this role but it turns out he can turn on a southern accent with the best of them.
Jake puts together a defence team that includes his best friend Harry Rex Vonner a sleazy fun loving divorce lawyer. Another good casting decision gave Oliver Platt the role. There is also a cameo role for Donald Sutherland as the disbarred whiskey-drinking lawyer Lucien Wilbanks who is Jake’s mentor and previous owner of his practise. The final member is Ellen Rourk a crusading ultra liberal law student. For some reason Sandra Bullock, who was cast in the role, received top billing when in essence it’s only a supporting part, unlike the similar character in The Pelican Brief. Personally I found her performance somewhat irritating with overacted expressions and the continuous flashing of those teeth, a common trait in her early work that age seems to have corrected .
Throughout the trial Cobb and his Klan direct violence and terror at Jake and his family. When they try to blow up his house Jake decides to send his wife Clara and their young daughter away to keep them safe. Clara is the typecast wife who opposes her husband’s stand, adding to his troubles, but comes through for him in the end. A small part for the classy Ashley Judd before she hit the big time. During a demo outside the courthouse the KKK turn up for a spot of mindless violence. They don’t come off too well though as Grand Dragon Stump is hit by a petrol bomb and burns to death. Well his should have worn white like his fellow thugs and not the bright red that marked him out as their leader. With his intimidation attempts failing Cobb tries to eliminate Jake using a telescopic rifle but hits one of the National Guard called in to restore order instead. He may be the movie’s bad guy, but oh what a plonker!
The confident Buckley calls his prosecution witnesses to the stand to give evidence. Jake makes little headway in cross-examination as Judge Noose rules evidence on the rape as inadmissible. He does get lucky however when Deputy Looney takes to the stand. He was hit by a ricocheted bullet when Carl shot the rapists that resulted in him losing his leg. In a surprise twist he tells the jury that he too would kill anyone who raped his young daughter and demands they turn Carl loose. Another fine performance by the late starting Chris Cooper. The prosecution’s expert psychiatrist is easily discredited but so is Jake’s, which doesn’t advance his claim that Carl was insane at the time of the shooting. Meanwhile between adjournments the jury, against the Judge’s instruction, begin discussing the case during their meal breaks egged on by a bigoted member. In unofficial votes he begins to manoeuvre them to an unanimous guilty verdict, which he achieves even before the closing arguments.
Carl proves to be a creditable witness until under cross-examination when Buckley asks Carl if they (the rapists) deserved to die. By angrily responding yes and saying he hoped they burn in hell his plea of temporary insanity seems blown away, causing uproar in the court and leaving Jake in despair. Later back in jail Jake proposes a change of plea to manslaughter but Carl refuses then confesses the reason he chose to represent him. Only a white lawyer could know what it would take to convince a white jury to set him free.
With his prepared speech in tatters Jake addresses the jury in final summation. Asking them to close their eyes and listen to a story he relates to them in graphic detail the rape and torture of a little girl. Everyone in court assumes he’s referring to Tonya, Carl’s daughter even though he hasn’t used her name. With their eyes still closed he tells them to imagine the girl in the story is white. With tears on all their faces the jury is won over and subsequently bring in a verdict of not guilty.
A truly memorable movie but I wouldn’t say it made a profound impression on me although it did underline how stupid it was to pigeon hole people on the basis of their skin colour. I guess we’ve come a long way since those days.