A Time to Kill (1996) – Review

3 1/2 Stars

We used to go to the movies, and watch stories about people confronted with relatable obstacles or problems. Today, it’s easy to forget about that in the fog of superhero blockbusters and franchise installments of on-going globally loved reboots. Re-visiting the John Grisham courtroom drama A Time to Kill is a reminder that well told stories are just as captivating as fantastical tales stuffed with pricey CGI. This glossy Joel Schumacher directed legal thriller serves as the first starring role for Matthew McConaughey, who receives third billing behind co-stars Sandra Bullock and Samuel L. Jackson, and is the second best of all the Grisham novel-to-screen translations.

Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) is on trial for the murder of two men that raped and attempted to kill his 10yr old daughter. Before the men are brought to stand trail for their despicable crimes Haley guns them down with an assault rifle, while also injuring an innocent courthouse bailiff. Now, the disgruntled father is on trail for his life against a charge of two counts of homicide. Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) runs a struggling legal practice and is astonished when Hailey pleads with him to defend his case in a court of law. The young caucasian lawyer accepts the monumental task of avoiding a death penalty conviction for the black-skinned Hailey in a racial charged environment just waiting to explode.

Brigance’s legal team is aided by his hard-drinking more successful peer (Oliver Platt), and Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock) a pretty college student looking to lend her considerable research skills to the defense. Meanwhile, Freddie Lee Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland), the bigoted brother of the slain men assembles a Klu Klux Klan rally to demonstrate against the possibilities of freeing the murderous Carl Lee. This leads to an escalating series of events that brings the racial divide of the county and country into sharper focus.

The film’s focus on racial tensions and justice inequalities are used to propel the dramatic outcome of the court-case. Schumacher looks to have studied To Kill A Mockingbird for both visual inspirations and production design ideas. While the film is lengthy, it manages it’s running time efficiently, and remains captivating throughout. McConaughey, in a star-making vehicle, displays great screen chemistry with both Bullock and Jackson. A Time to Kill still resonates after two decades, and serves as a reminder of the days when courthouse dramas could do blockbuster business during the competitive summer season.

Director: Joel Schumacher
Stars: Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey

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