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'Time to Kill': Justice Gets a Make-Over

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 24, 1996

Perhaps director Joel Schumacher thought that adapting John Grisham's "A Time to Kill" would provide a welcome break from the simplicities of superhero filmmaking -- you know, a chance to tackle adult issues between "Batman" movies. But while Schumacher may have exchanged the Batcave for a Mississippi courtroom, he doesn't appear to have changed his stripes.

In Grisham's first -- and most substantive -- novel, the author explores the themes of justice, race and guilt in Faulkner country. Specifically, his attention falls on the trial of Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), a black factory worker who, in front of half the citizens of Ford County, shoots and kills the two white men accused of viciously raping his 10-year-old daughter.

In his screen version, Schumacher does a flamboyant job of staging the book without showing the slightest interest in what it's about. Granted, Grisham's original is no masterpiece; it's beach reading, but it deserves credit for addressing its subject with some conviction and integrity.

But although the story pivots on subtle moral distinctions of complicity and guilt, the filmmakers paint the conflicts in the same broad, simplistic strokes used for "Independence Day" or the Batman films. It's slick, fast-paced and glamorously sexy -- like "To Kill a Mockingbird" with a blockbuster make-over.

The one virtue to this approach is that it isn't dull. The film has dynamism and energy, plus a healthy dose of star power -- all of which would be virtues if, at the same time, the filmmakers didn't ask to be taken seriously.

As the story is set up, the case against Carl Lee appears to be open-and-shut. But as the book attempts to demonstrate, when race and sex are mixed in modern-day Mississippi, there are no normal circumstances. If Lee relies on the legal system for satisfaction, in all probability the monsters who defiled his little girl will go free with a slap on the wrist. The thought that they might go unpunished drives him to pick up his gun and take matters into his own hands.

From the outset, Grisham avoids the usual questions of guilt and innocence that are usually the first priority in courtroom dramas: Lee's crime is committed in plain sight. Instead, the main issue is whether Lee's violent act was justified -- and in the larger sense, whether the taking of a life ever truly balances the scales of justice. But in the movie there is no higher moral authority than the jury's verdict.

The movie is seen through the eyes of Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), the white lawyer who decides to defend Lee. A local boy who's evolved a half-step above most of his affluent, all-white crowd, Jake has a daughter, too. And in his heart of hearts, he knows full well what his reaction would be if his daughter had suffered as Carl Lee's had.

To take Lee's case, Jake has to oppose most of his friends -- including his secretary (Brenda Fricker), his best friend (Oliver Pratt) and, eventually, even his wife (Ashley Judd). He is depicted as the white knight -- the only man in the community willing to stand up in defense of goodness and right.

Jake's courtroom adversary is Rufus Buckley, a slick, ambitious operator played by Kevin Spacey, who pours on the regional flavoring without seeming to have much fun.

A Texas native, McConaughey does better with his Southern accent. He's convincing and at times even affecting in the role of a white man who thinks of himself as liberal and unprejudiced, but learns otherwise. In profile, the actor bears some resemblance to the young Brando (it's the forehead), and there's something of the Method star's volatile sexuality as well. In "A Time to Kill," however, Schumacher is so intent on marketing his leading man as a sexy hunk that McConaughey can never establish any emotional momentum.

Likewise Sandra Bullock, in a peripheral role, is also used as superstar meat. Her character is a rich law student who tries to persuade Jake to let her help in Lee's defense. Her T-shirt is so tight, you can count her ribs.

All the film's performers are undermined by commercial calculations -- even the usually dependable Jackson. And eventually the audience's enjoyment is undermined too. There's something wrong with a movie in which we're jerked out of a scene where Ku Klux Klan foot soldiers cause a riot on Main Street and into one where Bullock dabs antiseptic on McConaughey's peach-fuzzy behind.

A Time to Kill is rated R for violence and adult subject matter.

Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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