Black, White and a Few Shades of Gray

A Time to Kill does John Grisham proud

A Time to Kill abounds in types -- archetypes, stereotypes, typecasting -- but the performances are so vital and sharply focused, and the casting is so dead-on perfect across the board, that even the most familiar characters are infused with a compelling freshness. Lucien Wilbanks, Jake's former employer and occasional mentor, is the sort of whiskey-soaked, unfailingly gracious failure that we've seen dozens of times before in books, movies and plays with Deep South settings. But Donald Sutherland works subtle wonders in the role, with a minimum of obvious effort in just a handful of scenes. Likewise, Kevin Spacey manages to find the hard truth beneath the cliche of a politically ambitious prosecutor, conveying just the right measures of ruthless determination and unfettered arrogance without ever allowing the character to curdle into caricature.

Brenda Fricker, the Oscar-winning co-star of My Left Foot, doesn't really have a lot to do as Ethel Twitty, Jake's feisty secretary (and, quite possibly, Lucien's long-ago lover). Considering how obnoxious Ethel was in John Grisham's novel, it probably wasn't a bad idea to diminish the character's importance for this film adaptation. To Fricker's credit, however, she strikes exactly the right note of embittered resentment in her most important scene, where Ethel reminds Jake that his isn't the only life he placed at risk when he decided to do the right thing. Of course, A Time to Kill emphasizes this same point during its most melodramatic moments, when Klansmen are harassing Jake's wife, their daughter and, eventually, Ellen. But Ethel's harshly critical words carry even greater weight and stir, however briefly, some thought-provoking currents of moral ambiguity.

Sandra Bullock gets top billing in A Time to Kill, even though Ellen Roarke basically is a supporting role. (Perhaps in deference to the actress' star status, Ellen is introduced much earlier in the film than she was in Grisham's original.) There are times when the character seems just a little too perfect -- brainy, beautiful and able to break into a witness' office in a single bound. (Not for nothing does Judge Noose refer to her as "Lois Lane.") But Bullock plays Ellen with disarming directness, fiery intelligence and understated sensuality, allowing her to win over the audience with even less effort than it takes for Ellen to beguile Jake. She and McConaughey develop a slow-simmering chemistry that enhances the humor of their characters' spirited banter and elevates the heat index of their growing mutual attraction.

Other supporting players of note include Oliver Platt as the much-divorced Harry Rex Vonner, Jake's best friend and legal ally; Chris Cooper as the wounded deputy whose testimony is not quite what the prosecution hoped for; Ashley Judd as Carla, Jake's initially disapproving but ultimately supportive wife; Kiefer Sutherland (no, he doesn't have any scenes with his father) as the vengeful Freddie Cobb; and Patrick McGoohan as Judge Omar Noose, the latest in a string of colorful comeback roles for the onetime Secret Agent. Each is aptly cast and, like the film itself, thoroughly persuasive.

A Time to Kill.
Directed by Joel Schumacher. With Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson and Sandra Bullock.

Rated R.
145 minutes.

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