A Time To Kill, 1996

HBO Max | Rated R | 2 hours 29 minutes | RETRO REVIEW

Originally published 10/10/2020

Time warp back to the 90’s and play ‘Count the Oscar Winners.’ A Time to Kill was a triumph (back in the day). John Grisham’s first novel about Clanton, Mississippi, racism, justifiable vigilantism, lawyers, and the KKK, a black defendant and an all-white jury. This film has 5 future Oscar Winners, including 1 actor who has earned two statues. Can you find any more in this film?

Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) is the swaggering young lawyer tapped to defend Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), whose 10-year-old daughter is abducted and raped by two rednecks.  What is a father to do when he couldn’t be there to protect her?  He gets an M-16 and blows them away at a court appearance.

The screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, had a gem of a novel from Grisham, and then proceeded to warp the timeline, twist some of the characters, and cherry pick the climaxes of the original story.  Although the Director, Joel Schumaker, frames the movie well, this writer/director team has definitely missed the mark by overemphasizing the Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock) character.  Then they spoil the golden boy image of the lead character by trying to force romance and create chemistry, but it fails.  I understand that the hero must have flaws, but the temptation of Roark as forbidden fruit isn’t convincing, especially when the lead character is portrayed as a fine southern family man.  It’s also a poor casting decision to put Sandra Bullock up against Ashley Judd. If it’s a courtroom drama, let the catastrophic failures in front of the jury tarnish Jake’s image.

It’s the relationships between Jake and the other characters that make this story play out well.  And the relationship between Jake and Carl Lee creates the real drama and highlights the cracks in our society.  It’s the kind of drama that demonstrates just how hard it is for people from starkly different backgrounds to be friends and social equals.  Carl Lee tells Jake, “America is a wall, and you on the other side. How a black man ever gonna get a fair trial with the enemy on the bench and in the jury box?” Twenty-four years later we are still asking the same question.  And nowadays the Klan just goes by a different name.

BEST moment of the film: It’s a legal thriller so always the verdict, with an honorable mention for every scene where Oliver Platt speaks. WORST moment happens right about the time you realize that 24 years later, and after we had our first African American president, that not a single thing has changed to reduce racism in the US. STANDOUT who stole the show? Patrick McGoohan as Judge Omar Noose.  A great character name for a courtroom drama in the deep south. And the SCORE? Just a 5.  I loved the book and I loved the movie, but the adaptation failed and Sandra Bullock, a great actress, was miscast.

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