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Black, White and a Few Shades of Gray

A Time to Kill does John Grisham proud

John Grisham wrote A Time to Kill long before he became a fixture on the bestseller lists, and he continues to claim it as his personal favorite among all the novels he has written. A romantic notion? Probably. But perhaps also an accurate appraisal. A Time to Kill is the first Grisham novel that I didn't stop reading and start skimming midway through. The richly detailed and intelligently contrived story of a racially charged murder trial in a small Mississippi town has much greater emotional resonance than anything else that Grisham has written since. And it's not because the central character, an idealistic young lawyer, is so obviously Grisham's alter ego.

In many respects, the novel updates the Depression-era plot of To Kill a Mockingbird by transferring it to a New South where old prejudices can be reignited with disconcerting ease. In Grisham's variation, there is no doubt that the black defendant, a factory worker named Carl Lee Hailey, committed the crime. In full view of what seems like half the population of Clanton, Mississippi, Hailey fatally shoots two scuzzy rednecks and seriously wounds a deputy sheriff in the local courthouse. But there are extenuating circumstances: the rednecks raped, beat and nearly killed Carl Lee's ten-year-old daughter. That may be enough for Carl Lee's energetic but inexperienced white lawyer, Jake Brigance, to get Carl Lee declared not guilty by reason of insanity.

And then again, maybe not.
For years, Grisham turned down offers to purchase movie rights for A Time to Kill. Indeed, he strongly hinted that he would never allow this, the most personal of his books, to be filmed. But then director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman adapted Grisham's The Client, and the author liked what he saw. (Actually, The Firm was a much better movie, but it may have been too free an adaptation -- or too much of an improvement -- to please Grisham.) So Grisham turned his treasure over to Schumacher and Goldsman, figuring they could do justice to his novel. A wise move.

The filmmakers have done an exemplary job of compression and restructuring in their largely faithful adaptation of A Time to Kill. More important, they have made a film that stands on its own merits as vividly acted, intensely gripping and splendidly well-crafted entertainment, easily the best courtroom drama since The Verdict.

Much like The Verdict -- a first-rate movie that achieved greatness through Paul Newman's amazingly multifaceted lead performance -- A Time to Kill serves as a showcase for a star. In this case, however, it is a rising star, Texas-born Matthew McConaughey, in what can only be described as a star-making role. Or, more accurately, a star-making scene: as Jake, McConaughey delivers a final address to the jury that is as powerful as anything you're likely to see on-screen this year.

Here and there, McConaughey looks very much like a young Paul Newman. (That is, the Newman of Hud, not the gray eminence of The Verdict.) But the resemblance doesn't stop there. Like Newman, McConaughey manages the difficult feat of seeming smart, sexy and substantial at the same time, with a comparably artful balance of brash cocksureness and burdensome self-doubt. It is a potent mix.

Jake Brigance is hardly as noble as Atticus Finch, and that is a large part of the character's appeal. He is racially enlightened -- comparatively speaking -- but he is by no means a card-carrying liberal. (He believes in the death penalty, though not, of course, in Carl Lee's case.) At first, when he agrees to defend Carl Lee, he makes no secret of his hope that the case will bring him fame, acclaim and deep-pocketed clients. He is too sure of himself to accept help, even when it is offered by an Ole Miss law student, Ellen Roarke (Sandra Bullock), who likely has forgotten more about legal precedents than Jake will ever know. Worse, Jake is too quick to dismiss the possibility of violence against his family and others close to him, even after Freddie Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland), the brother of one of Carl Lee's victims, goes so far as to seek help and guidance from the Ku Klux Klan.

In short, Jake is so brimming with sass and hubris that it comes as no surprise at all when, in and out of the courtroom, he is taken down several pegs. And just in case you're thinking, "Okay, here's another story about an all-knowing white boy who saves the bacon of some downtrodden black man," consider this: Jake discovers early on that he must respond to his client as an equal, not as some condescending savior. It's not just that Carl Lee has the opportunity to fire Jake and accept legal aid from the considerably more resourceful NAACP (an organization, it should be noted, that is not depicted in an altogether admiring light). Near the end of the film, Carl Lee leaves Jake shocked and speechless as he reveals just how much well-considered thought he put into weighing the pros and cons of having a white lawyer.

Perhaps the smartest thing Schumacher and Goldsman did while adapting A Time to Kill was to flesh out Carl Lee, to make him less passive and more self-aware. Samuel L. Jackson plays Carl Lee with a furious passion and a steel-spined pride, bringing tremendous conviction to the character's motivations and emotions.

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