Turn Back the Clock
 

A Time to Kill

Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures


Reviewed by Melissa Minners

 

                In the early 1990s, I read an amazing legal thriller by John Grisham entitled A Time to Kill.  A few years later, a movie adaptation starring Matthew McConaughey hit the theaters.  The movie adaptation was pretty good – one of the better adaptations of Grisham’s novels I have ever seen.  When I learned that the book would soon become a stage production, I decided to watch the movie again…for about the thirtieth time.

                In A Time to Kill, Samuel L. Jackson is Carl Lee Hailey, a hardworking devoted African American Mississippi family man whose world is shattered when his ten-year-old daughter Tonya (Rae’Ven Larrymore Kelly) is raped, severely beaten and left for dead.  The two drunken racist rapists, Billy Ray Cobb (Nicky Katt) and James Louis Willard (Doug Hutchison), are arrested, but Carl Lee Hailey is certain that they will be let go with minimum jail time.  Carl Lee is distraught, unable to come to terms with this theory.  He approaches someone he can trust, Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), a white lawyer who has helped his family in the past and discusses the possibility of the rapists’ acquittal. 

Carl Lee pointedly asks Jake if he would defend him if Carl Lee were to get into a jam.  Jake’s wife (Ashley Judd) thinks he should contact Sheriff Ozzie Walls (Charles Dutton), but Jake is torn between disbelief that Carl Lee would actually do something and his wish that Carl Lee would.  When Carl Lee turns up at the courthouse and kills Cobb and Willard, he turns to Brigance to defend him.  Brigance accepts the case out of guilt and a sense of duty.  But he is wholly unprepared for the political and personal repercussions trying this case will bring. 

Can his drunken old mentor, his cynical divorce lawyer best friend and a socially conscious law student help Jake Brigance go to battle with the area’s top lawyer and a new enclave of the KKK and win Carl Lee’s freedom? 

Every time I see this film, I can’t help but marvel at the amazing acting.  In order to understand what I mean, you have to realize that, for many, A Time to Kill represents a movie fairly early in their careers.  For Matthew McConaughey, this was his first leading man role and he was wholly believable and absolutely adorable.  Samuel L. Jackson gives an award-winning performance as a distraught father who wants justice for his child.  Sandra Bullock gives a strong performance as a law student who offers to help for free, so strongly does she believe in Carl Lee’s case.  Nicky Katt and Doug Hutchison offer up excellently sleazy performances, convincing the viewer that these two got exactly what they deserved.

There were also some class act performers in this film performing their usual best like Donald Sutherland, Jake’s fallen-from-grace mentor; Kiefer Sutherland, Billy Ray Cobb’s revenge-obsessed brother, Ashley Judd, Charles Dutton, Kevin Spacey as Canton’s politically minded District Attorney, Oliver Platt as Jake’s best friend, Brenda Fricker as Jake’s much-put-upon office manager.  And if you are really observant, you will note Octavia Spencer in her first role as one of the local hospital’s more outspoken nurses.

The movie is dramatic and forces viewers to do some soul searching.  Is there such a thing as justifiable homicide?  If one believes that the two rapists should be heartily punished for the horrific acts that they performed on Carl Lee’s daughter, does that make what Carl Lee did to them (believing they would go free) acceptable?  Or isn’t murder always wrong, no matter who is being killed?  Quite a thought provoking argument.

Also eye-opening is the jury selection process – what makes a good juror on a particular case, what to stay away from, the research that goes into it, etc.  The book spends more time on this aspect of the trial.  In my opinion, the movie spends too little time on it, though I understand why, given time constraints and the need to hold the whole audience’s attention through more dramatic means.

I loved that, despite some omissions for time’s sake and for a more favorable movie rating, the creators of the movie stayed very closely to its source material.  The movie version of A Time to Kill is very much like the movie, especially when referring to the main character’s inner turmoil.  McConaughey was very good at expressing this to the viewers through body language and facial expression.

For anyone who hasn’t seen this movie, if you are a John Grisham fan, A Time to Kill is a must see as one of the best films adapted from one of his novels.  As a film fan in general, A Time to Kill is a dramatic film with a captivating and thought-provoking storyline and tremendously powerful acting performances.  Definitely well-worth checking out for the first or even the fortieth time!

 

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