Note: the last two paragraphs of this review spoil the ending of the film. Caveat emptor.
John Grisham’s 1989 novel A Time to Kill was rejected by major American publishers, ultimately getting a 5000-copy print run from Wynwood Press. When his second novel, The Firm (1991) sold about seven million copies, not only did it lead to a much larger reprint of A Time to Kill but Grisham was transformed into Hollywood’s hottest literary property.
Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of The Firm came first in 1993, followed by Alan J. Pakula’s The Pelican Brief later that year and Joel Schumacher’s The Client in 1994. Two years later Schumacher returned with A Time to Kill – adapted at last – having directed Batman Forever in between. When Schumacher followed his second Grisham film up with Batman & Robin in 1997, it pretty much capped one of the more bizarrely inconsistent runs an American filmmaker had ever had: inconsistent in content, in tone, in subject matter, and in quality. Looking back after more than 25 years, it still seems a hard period to logically reconcile.
A Time to Kill follows young Mississippi lawyer Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), who defends black man Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) – who has murdered two white supremacists that raped and tortured his young daughter. While battling prosecutor Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey) in court, Brigance and his family are under threat from Freddie Lee Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland) – the vengeful brother of one of the dead men.
Legal dramas essentially require good screenplays and casts, since by-and-large they consist of people arguing in rooms to drive their narratives. In the latter regard A Time to Kill excels. Not only does the film feature McConaughey, Jackson, Sutherland, and Spacey (an uncomfortable presence given subsequent sexual misconduct allegations), it also employs Sandra Bullock, Donald Sutherland, Ashley Judd, Charles S. Dutton, Oliver Platt, Brenda Fricker, and Patrick McGoohan. Regardless of the film’s other virtues and problems, it boasts one of the strongest Hollywood casts of its decade.
There is a particularly great scene in the middle of the film, in which Jake – despairing that he is losing the case – confides in Carl Lee that he has let his friend down. An overly patient Carl Lee is left to remind Jake that they aren’t friends. Jake has never visited Carl Lee’s house. Their kids have never played together. It is a powerful reminder of privilege, racism, and class. There are a number of similar scenes and moments throughout the film. Sadly there are other scenes and moments that push in the other direction.
It all falls apart completely in its jubilant, overly celebratory climax. An overbearing orchestral arrangement loudly blares over scenes of cheering African-Americans, angry and defeated Klansmen, and much back-slapping and hugging in court. Days later, as Carl Lee hosts a party at his home, Jake arrives with his wife and child – their kids playing together at last. The world is set right again. Racism has, at long last, finally been fixed.
There is an inescapable truth that A Time to Kill, despite some good performances and dialogue and a provocative premise, is ultimately a film about assuaging white guilt. It adapts novel by a white man, directed by another white man, starring a predominantly white cast, about fixing injustices committed against a black man. People of colour, assaulted by racist white people, can only be saved by other, more egalitarian white people. There is a lot in here that is effective, and plenty that works. There is simply also a lot that doesn’t.