• U.S.


3 minute read
Richard Schickel

A Time to Kill is a likable–maybe even lovable–movie. These are admittedly strange words to apply to a bristling melodrama that begins with the brutal rape of a young black girl and proceeds to the murder of her redneck assailants by her father, then to his trial, during which a revived Ku Klux Klan employs the full range of its all-too-familiar terrorist tactics as it tries to prevent justice from being done.

Justice, in this case, cries out for acquittal. For Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) is a decent man, and if ever a homicide was justifiable, the vengeance he wreaks on his child’s tormentors is it. On the other hand, Hailey is black, the jury is entirely white, the venue is a small town deep in the Southern boondocks, and the prosecutor (Kevin Spacey at his snakiest) is of course politically ambitious, therefore legalistically relentless.

But he reckons without a factor that used to animate many of our best movies and many of our better moments in life: idealism. In this instance, it arises in the unlikely form of Jake Brigance, who is played by the suddenly and, on the basis of this performance, deservedly chic Matthew McConaughey. Brigance is a young and desperately unsuccessful lawyer, but he is all that Hailey can afford. Before the movie, based on John Grisham’s first novel, is over, crosses will burn on the lawn and crucial witnesses will falter on the stand. Worse, Brigance’s home will be destroyed by arson, his marriage will be nearly wrecked, and his tempting, perky paralegal (Sandra Bullock) will be abducted and abused by the Klan. But he will persevere. And his closing argument–screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s most visible addition to the book–will tear your heart out.

Director Joel Schumacher’s breathlessly paced and incident-crammed movie will induce a certain sense of deja vu among veteran viewers. Yes, we have intruded in this dust, killed this mockingbird before. But that was back in the days before lawyer jokes, before we became transfixed by transgressive hipness, before we became a full-time culture of irony.

It is from that evocation of an earlier era that A Time to Kill’s lovability arises. The film’s makers have transferred us back to a more innocent and predictable movie world, a place where good hearts are self-consciously liberal hearts, brimming–O.K., bleeding–with the belief that honorable argument will defeat vile and skulking prejudice. It is, one has to admit, a world of pure fantasy. But it is pretty, and not entirely useless, to think otherwise.

–By Richard Schickel

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