Thursday 20 August 2015

Movie Review: A Time To Kill (1996)

An overstuffed legal drama, A Time To Kill offers an all-star cast and plenty of incident, but quickly sprawls into too many crimes and loses touch with reality.

In rural Mississippi, two redneck white trash supremacists brutally rape Tonya, a ten year old black girl. She survives and identifies the attackers, who are summarily arrested. Before their trial can start, Tonya's dad Carl Lee (Samuel L. Jackson) approaches his friend and lawyer Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) and strongly hints that he will be seeking vigilante justice and would want Jake to subsequently defend him. Sure enough, Carl Lee goes ahead and guns down the two perpetrators and seriously wounds police officer Dwayne Looney (Chris Cooper) in the process.

The case generates a media circus, with District Attorney Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey) seeking the death penalty. Brigance reconnects with his retired mentor Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland) and prepares a defence based on temporary insanity. Young and idealistic law student Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock) offers her help to the defence team. Meanwhile, the black community rallies behind Carl Lee, while Freddie Lee Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland), a brother of one of the victims, reaches out to the Ku Klux Klan. They start a campaign of intimidation against Brigance, placing his wife Carla (Ashley Judd) and young daughter in harm's way. With the small town rocking with violence and protests, Jake has to find a way to defend a distraught black father in front of an all-white jury.

Another John Grisham adaptation and again directed by Joel Schumacher, A Time To Kill is a glossy production, filled with familiar faces in every role, and with enough going on to maintain interest over 150 minutes. The performances are solid within the courtroom and on the streets, and Schumacher creates a sweat-drenched Southern aesthetic where different rules apply, and deep racial divides are hidden just below the surface. The search for justice in a straightforward vigilante violence case made much more complicated by racial overtones presents a juicy social dilemma.

But the film suffers from several issues, not the least of which is the multiplicity of crimes that cascade from the original murders but seem to come and go with no consequence. In the course of the film a cross is burned on the front lawn of the Brigance house, an old man is badly beaten, a house is burned down, a woman is kidnapped and left to die tied to a tree, and a national guardsman is shot in the neck, in broad daylight, with a high powered sniper rifle. Not one of these crimes receives any follow-up attention or investigation, and the perpetrators remain free to roam the streets.

A Time To Kill also suffers from an Akiva Goldsman script that can only be called lazy. In an attempt to perhaps pack in too much of the book's content into the film, many sub-plots are casually introduced and barely developed, and characters flounder on the rocks of poor advancement. There are a couple of scenes showing the jury grappling with the case over a meal; they then disappear from view and don't even get the privilege of being seen to deliver the verdict. An entire sub-plot related to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People insisting on replacing Brigance with a high profile hired gun consumes valuable screen time and adds very little. An informant within the Klan plays a key role; his seemingly compelling story is dangled tantalizingly and then abandoned. And the characters of Ellen Roark, Lucien Wilbanks and Jake's friend and rival Harry (Oliver Platt) vie for screen time and barely get one meaningful scene each.

But the presence of McConaughey, Jackson and Spacey ensures that the film is never less than watchable, as they whack away at the thicket of an overgrown plot and towards a final courtroom confrontation. A Time To Kill is decent, but would have greatly benefited from an old fashioned pruning.

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