Time to Kill
One of the most powerful plot devices that can be used to drive a story is to take a reasonable and force him to confront circumstances so far beyond reason that all traces of his normally peaceful temperament is disintegrated leaving only the most base and animalistic traits that typically lurk only in the dark recesses of our personalities. One reason this theme is such a powerful means to drive a drama is it permits the regular people to quickly relate with the protagonist no matter what potentially heinous actions he may later resort to using. When brutality is the end product of events placed in motion early in a story the film maker or story teller as the case may be, has to grab the audience quickly and firmly. The viewers are going to consist of the same reasonable people so the problem is getting them to go beyond understanding the character’s actions to being able to readily identify with them on a deeply emotional level. There are two fundamental methods for presenting this type of story. The first is to chronicle the emotional turmoil as it builds to the inevitable boiling point. A primary example of this point of view is the intense film ‘Falling Down’. A movie to look to witness the aftermath of these actions you need look no further than the court room drama of ‘A Time to Kill’. while the underlying plot points have be well covered before but this movie has a rare intensity and demonstration of an excellent ensemble cast that makes is a perennial favorite among devotees of legal thrillers. ‘A time to Kill’ builds suspense masterfully to an impressive conclusion. Some may feel a civil rights motivated case is pout dated but that is only one aspect of this mélange. The only impediment to full success here is this film is suited for comparison with true cinematic masterpieces like ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’. Any movie will lose a little compared to that film.
The first requirement of a truly entertaining and engrossing movie is the script. Even the most successful bestselling novel can lose a bit of its luster in the translation to a screenplay but in the case of this film the integrity of the book was retained. ‘A Time to Kill’ was the first in a long, still growing list of hit novels by one of the legal thriller’s leading authors, John Grisham. Many of his books have been migrated into hit films, several receiving the treatment before this one took its turn. This turned out to be beneficial to the construction of this movie since it allowed Grisham to prove himself as a literary force to be reckoned with and a verified top earner for the studio. This translated into a greater degree of creative control afforded to him than is usually extended to the writer of the source material. Even with that said the script by Akiva Goldsman did has to make some concessions in the name of dramatic license in order to make the story work in this different media. Goldsman is a much sought after screenwriter possessing an amazing list of credits. Among them is ‘The Client’, another novel by Grisham. Accompanying this script on Goldman’s resume are both novels by Dan Brown, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angels and Demons’ as well as ‘A Beautiful Mind’,’ Cinderella Man’ and episodes of the exceptionally well crafted television series ‘Fringe’. All of this readily demonstrates that Goldsman is an artist who is quite expert at generating suspense and maintaining an edge of your seat feel to the story. The progression of the screenplay emulates Grisham’s ability to captivate the audience by weaving an emotionally enthralling work.
For ten year old Tonya Hailey (Rae'Ven L Kelly) the hot, summer’s day was like any other in rural Mississippi. She just came out of the local store fetching the family grocers for her mother. On her way home she is waylaid by a pair of local redneck bigots, Billy Ray Cobb (Nicky Katt) and Pete Willard (Doug Hutchison) who rape her beating her to within an inch of her life. This event is the catalyst that sets in motion a dire chain of events. The first is the overwhelming grief experienced by her father Carl Lee (Samuel L. Jackson). Distraught and distrusting of the chance of a black family receiving justice in this region he first goes to talk to a young, white lawyer he trusts, Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) hoping he’ll help should the need arise. That need comes up soon than Jake could have suspected when Carl Lee comes to court shooting the men responsible to death seriously injuring a deputy. Prior to this Carl Lee was a solid member of the community but this horrific attack on his little girl was too much to bear. Shooting people to death in a courthouse, especially before they could even face trial polarizes the community along racial lines turning the small town into a powder keg ready to explode.
One factor that may have worked against the film is something I personally found as a positive is the complexity of the subtext and interaction of numerous plot lines throughout the story. Many people seem to like there retribution flicks straightforward. Just let the aggrieved party loose and watch the body count mount. Grisham is more subtle than that and Goldsman far too well versed at building suspense to fall into that banal mode. One of Grisham’s favorite conundrums is the juxtaposition and eventual conflict between justice in the codex of the law against justice from a moralistic perspective. There is no uncertainty in the fact that under the law Carl Lee is guilty as charged. He walked into a courthouse with an assault rifle taking the life of two men who under the law were innocent. On the other hand Carl Lee was a working class black man living in the socially isolated rural section of Mississippi. The hard fought civil liberties of the last decades still had not become universally accepted and a considerable portion of the white population retain the irreprehensible attitudes of the past. Carl Less was fully aware that the men who raped and beat his daughter would not receive any punishment close to what they deserved. This is the crux of the film. He was not by nature a vigilante but blinded by rage he was driven to take justice in his own hands. The prevalent reactionary objection of racial equality is highlighted here by the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. Though largely dormant it is quickly resurrected by some local young men who basically use their view of racial superiority as an excuse for unbridled violence and intimidation.
Underlying everything is the cast. McConaughey is perfect as the dedicated lawyer who is financially broke but morally strong in his convictions. Acting as a touch of comic relief is Oliver Platt as the low end divorce attorney Harry Rex Vonner, best friend of Jake an able to pull himself together long enough to help. A true scene stealer here is Sandra Bullock as the energetic law student Ellen Roark. There is also a great performance by Kevin Spacey as the cocky prosecutor and as usual Jackson turns in a character presentation that grabs the audience. Two generations of an acting family are given here by Donald Sutherland as Jake’s inebriated mentor and the son Kiefer as the local man responsible for bringing the KKK into things. This is an intense experience that should not be missed.