A Time to Kill (1996)

Directed by Joel Schumacher
Written by Akiva Goldsman

Thus far, I have been surprisingly disappointed by the John Grisham cinematic universe. While The Firm was a strong entry, I am beginning to be tired by the very broad and melodramatic strokes that these films are being told with. The Pelican Brief wastes not only a good cast, but a good novel (as the last novel in the series I actually read), while The Client just seemed like a silly story that, without having read the novel, feels like it would have been difficult to adapt regardless. But here we arrive with A Time to Kill, which is the one film of the series that I’ve seen before, and remember liking a great deal. While this rewatch has changed how I look at the film a little, with the added context of the other Grisham entries, my opinion of the film remains largely the same.

On her way home from the grocery, little Tonya Hailey is brutally attacked and raped by two racist white men. To avenge his daughter’s attack, Carl Lee (Samuel L. Jackson) takes matters into his own hands, murdering the two perpetrators, and injuring an officer (Chris Cooper) in the crossfire. In the sweltering heat of a Mississippi summer, this case engulfs the community. Young lawyer Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), along with the help of a law student (Sandra Bullock), his mentor (Donald Sutherland) and friend (Oliver Platt), navigates the tumultuous trial of Carl Lee while challenging the establishment (Kevin Spacey and Patrick McGoohan) and avoiding the building tension between the white and black communities.

To this point, it’s extremely evident that Grisham held an incredible about of cache in the mid-90s, just look at the casts his films have brought in. Everyone wants to be a part of the machine, and A Time to Kill is perhaps the most impressive, partially due to what this cast became. McConaughey early in his career delivers a great performance, while Samuel L. Jackson also gives one of his strongest, most grounded performances in his career.Sandra Bullock shows up, even Oliver Platt during his mid-90s “moment”. But the list goes on. I think the cast here is really the films strongest attribute, as the ensemble really sells the story and brings a level of legitimacy to the proceedings, which are at once painted with the broad strokes I mentioned earlier, while also capitalizing on the shock value of such a trial.

There are certainly some broad strokes and extremely well-trodden tropes on director Joel Schumacher’s tool belt, but the film is able to overcome it with a certain degree of sincerity that seemed to be lacking in the last few films in the marathon. The racists are cartoonishly racist. The tense moments are occasionally eye rollingly constructed, and especially the tentative relationship between Brigance and his wife (Ashley Judd) is bumbled somewhat as well. Luckily, everything comes together, often in the scenes between Brigance and Carl Lee, where both performers thrive, and the law team of Brigance and the Bullock and Platt characters, which provides both brief comedic relief and sincere judicial work.

I may have to admit a little bias and call this film a slight guilty pleasure. It likely isn’t quite as good as I ultimately rate it. But I stand by the opinion that this is the most entertaining and involving Grisham entry to date. The Firm is perhaps more expertly crafted, but A Time to Kill has so much to offer. For instance, I absolutely love how hot this film is. That every character is sweating profusely in each and every scene adds a certain layer of weight to the film. It’s a great showcase for a great cast. Occasional nonsense be damned.

★★★★☆ – LOVED IT

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