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A Time To Kill  

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Charles S. Dutton, Donald Sutherland, Kiefer Sutherland, Brenda Fricker, Kurtwood Smith, Patrick McGoohan Directed by: Joel Schumacher Written by: Akiva Goldsman

I've never read the novel "A Time to Kill", by John Grisham, but I have a feeling that the movie version follows the book pretty close. Quite a bit has been packed into this story, about a brutal rape, vigilante justice, and whether or not a black man can get a fair trial anywhere in the south.

 Buy A Time To Kill [1996] on DVD at Amazon!

The daughter of a local construction worker named Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) is savagely beaten and raped while walking home from the local market. The thugs who performed the vicious act are caught by the local sheriff (Charles S. Dutton), but will probably not go away for very long - maybe a few years in jail is all. A burning rage is building up inside of Carl Lee. Knowing the guilty ones won't get the sentence they deserve, he decides to take the law into his own hands and guns them down while they're being marched into the courtroom for their arraignment. A young lawyer named Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) decides to take Hailey's case, partially because of the media attention, but mainly because of an obligation he feels toward Carl Lee. His opponent in the trial is Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey), the district attorney who is in it solely for the media attention. Along the way he gets some helpful advice from Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland), his mentor who was disbarred years ago and now spends his days drinking heavily to erase the pain of a lost career. Brigance also gets some much-needed assistance from a Boston law student named Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock) who knows past cases inside and out, and is able to provide Brigance's defense team with references when they need them most. (She also has a knack for finding useful information as well, as in one scene where she tries to get into the office of a psychiatrist but is stopped by a guard. She pesters the guard into giving her the doctor's room number. In the next shot, we see her climbing into the psychiatrist's office from the outside through a window. How did she know, from the outside, what window was his office? I guess they must post the room numbers on the outside of windows as well as doors.)

After the shooting, the brother of one of the victims (Kiefer Sutherland) meets with the "grand dragon" of the Ku Klux Klan (Kurtwood Smith) who is eager to make him a member. The Klan wreaks havoc on all those involved in the attempt to acquit Carl Lee. Brigance is asked by several of his colleagues to give up the case, including Ethel Twitty (Brenda Fricker), who has lived her life in the south, and realizes the consequences this case could bring. But in the face of all this, young Brigance refuses to give up. He understands the pain and suffering that can come about from going ahead with a cause like this. But he also realizes that causes like this, while sometimes seem like lost causes, are essentially steps that can lead this country toward a more peaceful future. ("One case at a time" as he was told by his mentor.)

"A Time to Kill" tells a story of tremendous raw emotional power, yet tells it in a very cautious manner. The film does have some very powerful moments - the rape scene, for example, which is shot using camera angles that suggest what the victim would see. It's not quite as graphic as the rape scene is "The Accused" but does exude a sense of claustrophobic horror associated with such a vile act. It's a frightening sequence, masterfully put together by director Joel ("Flatliners", "The Client") Schumacher. Brigance's summation speech is another strong moment, expressed with a conviction capable of slicing through the thickest of emotional barricades by newcomer Matthew ("Lone Star") McConaughey.

Somehow, despite those moments, I never felt "pulled in" emotionally as I thought I should be. One reason might be the fact that the film views the situation through the eyes of so many different characters. In a sense, that's good, in that we see how different groups of people view a particular incident in different ways. On the other hand, that can take away from the overall emotional impact of the story. If the film had been told through the eyes of Carl Lee Hailey, for example, I think I would have been more emotionally involved. By looking at the story from all possible angles, it places the viewer's involvement in the story at arm's length, which can be hazardous to a story as involving as this one.

Although the film was told from many perspectives, one that was conspicuously overlooked was the point-of-view of the black characters in the story. Perhaps the most important theme discussed in the movie is racial tensions and attitudes, yet we never get to know in detail about the Hailey family. How do they feel about what is going on? What does Carl Lee's wife really think of what he did? Was justice served in their eyes? What do his children think? None of these questions are ever given the attention they deserve. For a movie about racial attitudes, the filmmakers were a bit shy in letting us get to know it's African-American characters. The only reason I can guess as to why these areas weren't explored is that perhaps the writer, Akiva Goldsman, wanted to remain truthful to the novel and not stray far off course.

I'll bet John Grisham fans will end up loving the movie. If it is as close to the novel as I think it probably is, it'll be hailed by loyal readers as a masterpiece. As for me, I can't help but think that a better film could have been made using this same material.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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