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A 'Time' for Overkill

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 26, 1996

"A Time to Kill" is the kind of stirring story you expect from a John Grisham movie. It has some other entertaining factors: It launches Matthew McConaughey as an official stud; and Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey give great performances. But the racial card is used so flagrantly in the film, you wonder if Johnny Cochran shouldn’t get a screenwriting credit.

One day in the Confedrate-flag-waving South, a 10-year-old black girl is harassed, raped and mutilated by two raving rednecks. The girl survives the gruesome assault, but her face is cut up, her soul is violated, and she’ll never have children. Are we sufficiently fired up? The girl’s father, Carl Lee Hailey (Jackson), certainly is. Although the perpetrators are caught and hauled into court, he decides to avenge this moral outrage on his own. Pulling out a shotgun, he slaughters both of them on the court steps. Unfortunately, he wounds a police officer (Chris Cooper) in the knee, forcing the cop’s leg to be amputated.

Charming premise.

Hailey appeals to financially hurting, wet-behind-the-ears attorney Jake Brigance (McConaughey), who once represented Hailey’s brother. This apparently hopeless case is just what Brigance needs to test his moral fiber. Despite howling protests from his peers (including his puffy, amoral legal colleague, played by Oliver Platt), threats of retribution from various good ol’ boys (including Keifer Sutherland, who still has done nothing about his ears), and the danger to his wife (Ashley Judd), child and secretary (Brenda Fricker), he agrees to defend Hailey. The case will be tried in the whitest county in Mississippi and Brigance is up against slick-and-smooth prosecutor Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey), who—surprise, surprise—is also running for political office.

Brigance has two great allies: his disbarred, alcoholic, but still morally upstanding mentor (Donald Sutherland in the usual Donald Sutherland role) and Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), a genius of a researcher, who provides her legal services free—and also tests his commitment to his wife.

There’s no question the movie’s entertaining. But the blatantly schematic depictions of black and white, liberal and hawk, and other tiresome dichotomies turn "A Time to Kill" into the moral equivalent of a cockfight. This is a story, after all, in which the name of the presiding judge (played by Patrick McGoohan) is Omar Noose. Director Joel Schumacher, who also made Grisham’s "The Client," milks everything, from the psychotic racism of the rapists, to the unctuous slickness of Prosecutor Buckley, to the unimpeachable character of Hailey. By the time the verdict is announced, Schumacher has black and white America ready to engage in civil war outside the courtroom, as National Guardsmen stand firm. All references to a certain, racial Trial of the Century seem entirely intentional. But that’s what the film’s all about: using shameless, manipulative measures to turn the audience into a liberal vigilante mob. It’s just a movie, right?

A TIME TO KILL (R) — Contains racial epithets, profanity, violence, frank courtroom descriptions of a rape and sexual situations.

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