Black, White and a Few Shades of Gray
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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.