A Time to Kill (1996)

Time-to-Kill

Dave’s 3-Word Review:
I recommend it.

As some of you probably already know, I recently received a college degree in Criminal Justice, and a big reason why I even went into that field was because of John Grisham. In youth, I owned all of Grisham’s books, and I still own most of them, but my tastes have changed over time. That doesn’t mean I don’t think of him as an amazing author, I still plan to read his recent novel, Sycamore Row, which is a sequel to his first ever novel, A Time to Kill. A Time to Kill, of course, is the movie adaptation of Grisham’s first novel, and in my opinion it did a very good job. The book’s obviously better, but I’m really impressed with the film as a whole.

The story is about a black man named Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), who is on trial for killing two men. Did he do it? There’s no question, it was witnessed by dozens of people, but was it the actions of a sane person, or someone so mad they didn’t understand what they were doing? That’s what his lawyer, Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to find out, if they can get the man out with the insanity plea. Their main argument is the mitigating factors leading up to the double homicide. Basically, these two guys raped and tried to murder his ten year-old daughter, so he went insane. But is this a black and white case? No pun intended. Or is there something deeper and human that everyone’s failing to see. While the case progresses, Jake and his family is tormented by members of the Klu Klux Klan.

This is such a powerful legal thriller, and obviously one of Grisham’s best. Some would argue it was his best, before he got into the routine of conspiracy and was just blunt and honest about the world and the job. The story obviously draws its strength from racism, prejudice, and ignorance, so it was wasn’t as much of a case of double homicide as it was a trial against Carl Lee just because he was simply a black man. So it was basically Jake’s job to tug at the biased jury’s heart strings, but that was really difficult because even the judge was at least partially racist. The trial wasn’t cleared to change venue, and so…jury wasn’t fair or impartial, making the defenses job a really difficult and practically impossible one.

As a student of law, there are some things I found technically frustrating on a legal level. First of all, that judge got on my nerves. Then again, this was a film about racism, so I’ll let that go. Second of all, Jake should have fought the judge harder to get that change of venue for a fair trial…but he gave up on that. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, trials aren’t about ethics. It looks cool in movies when they follow what feels right, but cases are about physical evidence and the case at hand, not feelings. The whole movie followed Jake as he made the case that Carl Lee is innocent based on insanity, but he doesn’t really have any proof better than…those boys raped that little girl. Well from a legal standpoint, that’s true, but it’s a different case. And from technicalities, Carl Lee would have clearly been put away on voluntary manslaughter…if the jury did their jobs right.

But movies are meant to entertain, that’s why my personal frustrations barely made a dent in my overall score. Movies are unrealistic, that’s just a fact of nature, its storytelling, and Grisham is a master story teller. The world he created for A Time to Kill is believable and emotional. The performances by McConaughey, Jackson, Spacey, and Bullock are impressive. In fact, I think this is the first of several performances by McConaughey in which he plays a lawyer. If I’m wrong, I apologize, but if this is truly his first performance in that regard, wow. It’s like he’s been doing it for years. I hope they make Sycamore Row into a movie so some of these characters can return twenty years later and take on another case that’s as equally important on social issues (haven’t read the book).

The Good:

This is yet another film that opens your eyes about racism and the difference between what’s legally and morally just. Grisham has always done a fine job at making something as boring as a courtroom a set for something thrilling and inspirational. Performances all around are strong and moving.

The Bad:

Let’s face it, A Time to Kill is just really long. It’s hard to imagine the editors couldn’t find a single scene to delete, because 2.5 hours seems a bit much here. I like legal thrillers as much as the next guy, but there were simply scenes that could’ve been cut, edited down more, or heck, even acted quicker.

Memorable Quote:

Carl Lee Hailey: America is a war and you are on the other side. How’s a black man ever going to get a fair trial with the enemy on the bench and in the jury box?. My life in white hands? You Jake, that’s how. You are my secret weapon because you are one of the bad guys. You don’t mean to be but you are. It’s how you was raised. Nigger, Negro, Black, African-American, no matter how you see me, you see me different, you see me like that jury sees me, you are them. Now throw out your points of law Jake. If you was on that jury, what would it take to convince you to set me free? That’s how you save my ass. That’s how you save us both.

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7 thoughts on “A Time to Kill (1996)

  1. Pingback: What does it mean to be Christian? | Dave's Life

  2. Excellent review of an excellent movie. Interesting to see it through the eyes of someone who has studied law. BTW, you are correct about McConaughey playing a lawyer. At least two other times he did so, in “Amistad” and “The Lincoln Lawyer.”

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  3. It’s very long, but it is worth watching, if mainly because the performances are so good. Especially Jackson who just looks like he’s about to break-down and lose his shit at any second. Then again, that’s like most of his performances. Good review Dave.

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