Welcome to Canton, Mississippi. A place where greasy long-haired rednecks harass innocent black people and everyone is perpetually sweating. This is the setting for the film version of John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill.
The film begins with the brutal rape and attempted murder of a 10-year-old black girl. The immediate aftermath provides a horrifying look into the twisted minds of the two racist good old boys who committed the crime, but this psychology exercise is short-lived as the girl’s father (Samuel L. Jackson) takes justice and an M-16 into his own hands and guns them down in the courthouse.
Enter our hero, Jake Brigants, a young lawyer who leaps – well, hops maybe – to the defense of the father. Brigants is well-played by newcomer and surefire leading man of the future Matthew McConaughey. He’s backed up by his seedy divorce lawyer friend (Oliver Platt), a sexy law student/clerk (Sandra Bullock), and a Southern belle wife, played by Ashley Judd (daughter and sister of The Judds).
Problems begin when the brother of one of the dead men (Keifer Sutherland) calls up his Klan buddies and starts raising trouble – not only for the hero, but for the film in general. By the time it’s all over, three or four people are dead, two are crippled for life, and another has been left to die in the wilderness. Crosses have been burned, bombs have been set, and the National Guard has been called in. When Klansmen are being immolated outside the courthouse and the only way to have the trial is to have a Humvee with a machine gun parked on Main Street, not a whole lot can happen in the courtroom that’s gonna impress me. The word “overkill” comes to mind.
The film progresses through the standard courtroom drama clichés – an initial advance halted by a setback, then worse, until any chance of victory seems to be all but gone. Here again, A Time to Kill sets itself up to fail. Courtroom dramas invariably let everything hang on the closing argument. This is fine – but it better be a damn good closing argument. If the audience falls for it, then all is well. If it’s underwhelming, well…
A Time to Kill is salvaged by some phenomenal performances. Samuel L. Jackson deserves an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the tormented father, Carl Lee Haley. Matthew McConaughey is destined for a huge future with all-American good looks and Tom Cruise-like confidence. And Kevin Spacey is exceptional in a thankless role as as the oily prosecutor with gubernatorial aspirations who’s trying to send Haley to the gas chamber.
But in the end, A Time to Kill won’t surprise you. The ending is predictable enough (what do you think happens?) and it’s made worse by a let’s-all-be-happy coming together of the races that reeks of cliché. It’s these fatal errors that ensure A Time to Kill will be only that: an adequate way to kill some time.