A TIME TO KILL (1996) ** 1/2
The first reaction I heard after the film was by a bright, movie-savvy, liberal (that's a compliment) Mississippian. "They got the bad things that happen much better than the good things. "Right.
The bare bones of the story: In Canton, Mississippi,the 10-year old daughter of construction worker Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) is raped and almost killed by two sickening white-trash louts. Her father later shoots them dead while,unfortunately,wounding most seriously a deputy.
Newish lawyer Jake Brigance(Matthew McConaughey),clientless and in arrears with all his bills,is a conservative liberal and all around great fellow. He defends his friend Jackson,even though neither have any money. The opposition includes venal Judge Noose(Patrick McGoohan)and D. A. Rufus Buckley(Kevin Spacey),snooty, cold and ambitious for the governorship.
The town gets polarized between blacks and many of the whites. A dormant Ku Klux Klan resurfaces in plain sight,goes after our hero-lawyer. "Does he have a family?" asks a Klansman. "Yes? That's good. " You can see what violence is coming,the kind that calls for the National Guard.
There's something so old-fashioned about the movie's style and content that many filmgoers will think of "Intruder in the Dust" (1949) and "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962), both great, near-flawless movies about black people accused of crimes in White Power settings. But "A Time to Kill" is not in their league.
Its time-frame is so nebulous that it is, at first, the new cars that clue you in that all this is happening in our period--an awkward notion: the new South may not be a paradise of racial brotherhood (or the rest of the USA for that matter) but in the film it is seen as a throwback to the bad old days.
This is mostly because much of the plot revolves around the question: "Can a black person get justice from a white, local jury?" The answer is arbitrarily assumed to be "No. " When Jake asks for a change of venue, it is repeatedly rejected by sneaky,tricky,dishonest and whisky-loving Judge Noose.
Desperate Jake and Carl Lee do find modest funds for the sustenance of the jailed man's family and for the trial. How this is done--plausibly or not--is the neatest trick of the week,thought up by an unexpected person. Many other aspects are clearly manipulative. Take the early scenes with Jake's wife Carla. She is pretty,she is bra-less under her tank top,she glistens with perspiration (ladies perspire, men sweat). All this spells photogenic sex-appeal.
Take the many scenes with Sandra Bullock. She too radiates sex-appeal. She is a most talented actress who,unlike most other by-the-numbers stars, has her own personality. It is a universal truth that Ms. B. is the most likable and appealing new face of the 1990s. Now,except for Jake and Carl Lee,all other characters have second-banana roles-which is good. It's nice to see the British model applied to US movies,for name-performers (like Bullock) to take on lesser roles instead of having the film build up their parts for reasons of prestige or vanity.
The problem however is that Ms. B. 's part is phony. She plays Ellen, a wealthy, patrician Bostonian, a law student at "Ole Miss" (The University of Mississippi),the daughter of a legal eagle,the sexy owner of a sexy Porsche convertible,the possessor of vast experience in jurisprudence,of the ability to find legal precedents in a wink,of a genius mind and many other fantastic (I used the word on purpose) attributes. She keeps bugging Jake,offering her assistance for free. He keeps refusing until,predictably,he takes her on. She keeps delivering the legal goods,even if it means doing an improbable Nancy Drew turn by impersonating a reporter,then sneaking into an office where she finds with impossible rapidity files helpful to the Cause. It's suspenseful but overdone.
Also predictable is the tentative (but mercifully aborted) start of a romance between Ellen and Jake. This develops after the perspiring Mrs. Jake gets ticked off at her husband's endangering his family, then, for safety, goes with her daughter to stay with her parents. I am not breaking a state secret by revealing that she will return,all love and contrition.
If all this is not undiluted Hollywood hokum,what is? Yet I do admit that Ms. B. is a charmer,that by Tinseltown standards her lines are cute and perfectly in character.
Jake forms a too picturesque volunteer team with Ellen, Harry and Oliver. Pal Harry (an excellent Oliver Platt) is an Oscar Levant type (remember him?),a self-deprecating,boozing youngish lawyer who painlessly sacrificed his social ideals to the practice of divorce law that has made him wealthy. Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland) is an older man,a colorful alcoholic,a brilliant but no-longer-allowed-to-practice lawyer. He supplies,it seems to me,more ethical than legal support. Sutherland plays him with gusto,probably also relishing the fact that his son Kiefer Sutherland is in the movie as ignominious villain Freddie Cobb.
On the periphery is Jake's middle-aged secretary. She fills a small function as a kind of Chorus to Jake. Her "I'm a respectable Southern lady" is played convincingly by,of all people,Brenda Fricker who is Irish and was Oscared for "My Left Foot. "
Samples of additional improbabilities, clichés and in-jokes: 1) Max the dog survives a fire, which makes Jake and animal lovers happy; 2) The overdone discrediting of the prosecution's medical expert followed by the discrediting of the medical expert for the defense; 3) Sheriff Walls, who is black and liked by all,enters a redneck bar. The camera pans his body from bottom to top,as for enforcers in Wild West pictures; 4) Jake's dramatic summation gives us hitherto unmentioned facts concerning the rape; 5) Judge Noose's name is like a take-off on Wild West hanging judges,such as Roy Bean; 6) The nasty DA's name is Buckley,like you-know-who; 7) Carl Lee Hailey's last name is like that of the writer of "Roots"; 8) Carl Lee's shooting of the rapists is photographed in cliché slow motion; 9) How did Carl Lee get so quickly an assault weapon?; 10) Too many habitual or occasional drunks.
Making up somewhat for excesses,movieish pulchritude or ugliness and the abundance of local color,are some original points: The NAACP's involvement, more for its glory than to help Carl Lee. The preacher of Carl Lee's church who is not above an indirect bribe by the NAACP. The penury of both defendant and his lawyer,something very real yet almost never treated in films. Non-dragging courtroom scenes.
Production values are tops. The performers are all very good, including newcomer-in-a-lead role Matthew McConaughey,the object of huge publicity. Whether his looks deserve the hype they're getting is not for me to decide. Samuel L. Jackson is fine too,but he will surely be outlasted by the memorable,magnificent Juano Hernandez,the proud Lucas Beauchamp in "Intruder in the Dust. "
The city of Canton is in Madison County. The moral brunt of this overwrought but well-intentioned film is to throw bridges between races, the bridges of Madison County.