Serious subject matter and the best intentions haven’t stopped Joel Schumacher’s technically adept courtroom drama from toeing the line between moral superiority and reprehensibility. It feels like a step backward from 1993’s Falling Down, which was a more thoughtful exercise in vigilantism and never as certain about its own skewered, self-serving philosophy.
No fault lies with the performers, all of whom exceed the requirements of what are basically cookie-cutter characters, functioning only to facilitate the script’s agenda. Whether or not the guilt falls on John Grisham’s head (the film is based on his novel) is not for me to decide, but any moviegoer who has seen more than one film of the type will predict the resolution far before the nearly 150 minutes expire.
The setting is Canton, Mississippi, a sweat-drenched Southern burg, occupied by both sides of economic and racial dividing lines. One can assume that tension pre-existed in Canton, turbulently roiling up somewhere beneath the surface of a functioning society, patiently waiting to boil over. The rape and attempted murder of a 10-year-old black girl by white assailants is the tipping point, forcing the locals to take sides and prepare for battle.
Incensed with rage and expecting little retribution by local law enforcement, the girl’s heartbroken and working-class father (Samuel L. Jackson) decides to take a stand and assassinate the culprits, involuntarily crippling a police deputy in the process. The only legal representative willing to defend the vengeful patriarch may also be partially responsible for the crime, since the defendant had hinted at his violent ambitions during a previous conversation.
Matthew McConaughey brings a shoot-from-the hip bravado to the inexperienced lawyer, lending a sympathetic ear not offered by most of his social stratum, who are either apathetic, outspokenly racist or an amalgam of both. Despite his best intentions, a subconscious desire for media recognition and financial compensation cloud his judgment and the considerable strain the trial puts on his family and practice are indirectly caused by his own narcissism.
Unfortunately for the American justice system, he’s not the only one with an agenda. The District Attorney, Ku Klux Klan, NAACP and a rich, Ole Miss grad-student all want a slice of the pie, seeing dollar signs and political power between the lines. The level of corruption makes the potential for a fair trial seem absurd and the defense team goes forth, knowing that the deck is stacked against them.
Schumacher does a fine job visually detailing this media circus and its accompanying hysteria, especially in relation to the Klan’s insidious backroom dealings. The opening assault and subsequent transgressions inspire the right amount of anger and disgust, never teetering over the edge into pure exploitation, despite the stereotypically grease-soaked hillbillies that occupy his vision.
His work with the sprawling ensemble cast is also praiseworthy. Managing a dozen big names with unusually small parts is no simple task, but giving each individual a moment to shine speaks volumes about his abilities as a filmmaker.
Sadly, talent with performers doesn’t always translate to storytelling virtues. He and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman focus far more on the personal lives of the involved parties than the progression of the trial, draining the film of much-needed suspense. Equally frustrating are the attempts at generating sexual tension between McConaughey and Sandra Bullock (the affluent scholar). Romantic subplots are perfunctory and cheap, especially when retrofitted into a story too austere to need one.
The only diversion that might have lent complexity to the film would be to examine the perspective of the victim, shining light on the effects of sexual assault and humanizing a character that has otherwise been reduced to a plot point. The problem with shading in the innocent victim is that it might put the film’s tricky morality under a microscope, posing questions about a child’s ability to come to terms with trauma in an environment that legitimizes violence.
A Time to Kill isn’t willing to ask these questions and falters due to this inability to show moral ambiguity. Revenge is an understandable knee-jerk reaction, but justifying murder sets a rather dangerous precedent. Unfortunately, this film isn’t confident enough to examine the cost of vigilante justice, banking instead on sentimentality.
A Time to Kill (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1996)
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Written by Akiva Goldsman (screenplay) and John Grisham (novel)
Photographed by Peter Menzies Jr.