A Time to Kill, like just about everything seeping from John Grisham's popular pen, points up the author's two weaknesses as storyteller: plotting, and everything else. In this fairly routine courtroom drama, a cocky young Mississippi attorney named Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), craving success and adulation, agrees to represent Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) in a capital-murder trial. Everyone knows that Carl Lee, a poor black family man, shot and killed his victims. His only defense is that the victims were scummy white boys who raped and beat his 10-year-old daughter; they were, in fact, the kind who "needed killin'," and Carl Lee was simply the man to do it. The question is whether Jake's efforts on behalf of Carl Lee in front of the majority-white Southern town will be met with liberal acceptance or reactionary scorn.
Of course, the answer is "scorn," so Jake spends the rest of the film trying to get his client acquitted during the day, and fending off the blows of his nay-saying friends and family at night. Can there be any suspense as to whether Jake will rise above the unpopularity of his cause? Don't kid yourself.
Grisham's particular style of writing does read very persuasively on the page, but its deficiencies get magnified when transferred to the screen. Adaptations of his books require someone comfortable with having to compensate for melodramatic superfluity; with a director like Sidney Lumet, something profound could even emerge. Unfortunately, the job went to Joel Schumacher.
Schumacher is not inclined to allow authenticity or understatement to stop his artless emotionalism, couched in florid visuals, from eclipsing the stronger points in any of his movies. He seems to have established a particular niche for himself: marshaling the movie equivalents of serious-minded--yet seriously undercooked--summer-trash potboilers.
Being known as the foremost interpreter of the collected works of Grisham isn't exactly what I'd want on my epitaph, but Schumacher should feel lucky he's made it this far. He isn't a bad director, but he isn't a resourceful one, either.
And resourcefulness is precisely what A Time to Kill lacks. Working from Akiva Goldsman's script, Schumacher reduces everything--all the emotions, all the characters--to being either black or white. I'd like to attribute that to a conscious effort by the filmmakers to make the audience choose sides on each issue, to force the same kinds of introspective confrontations the characters face. But that would surely be overestimating their gifts. Instead, the film just seems like a constant barrage of family and friends--his wife, his secretary, his mentor--sniping at Jake. The judge confesses discomfort at having one of his own consigned to the role of sacrificial martyr, all in the name of that overvalued abstraction, "justice." Even the jury is a clutch of corrupt racists who decide during dinner that Carl Lee is guilty after only one prosecution witness has taken the stand. All that's missing from the scenario is a villain twirling his moustache and throwing the damsel onto the train tracks.
Such a tired device--the lone hero standing against tyranny in the face of seemingly insuperable odds--isn't only contrived, it's inherently unfair. Isn't Jake's idealism the very thing that drew all his friends to him in the first place? How do you separate his crusading spirit from his loyalty, from his entire personality? Naturally, you can't, which is why A Time to Kill doesn't leave space for ambiguity, or any room to exercise your own indecisiveness. It's done all the thinking for you, thank you very much. Contrary opinions, or even mild confusion, will not be tolerated.
If the themes don't permit much interpretation, that's because of the film's claustrophobic visual design. Schumacher's principal trick as a director is shoving his camera up his actors' noses so far that you practically get trapped under their skin. With retreat impossible, you're compelled to settle down firmly on their side or risk being smothered by them. I first began to notice his annoying use of extended close-ups in Dying Young, an unwatchable tearjerker starring Julia Roberts. Ever since, I can hardly look at one of his movies without feeling like the most despicable sort of voyeur--the kind who violates his subject's personal space. If there is such a thing as fanatical intimacy at the movies, it might be a product of Schumacher's own making. But such plentiful damp close-ups of sweaty Southerners led me to think less about their conversations than whether anyone in the town of Canton turns on the air conditioner in July.
The cast is capable if unspectacular. If the movie belongs to anyone, it's McConaughey. It's McConaughey's neck--that long, aquiline neck--that you notice first. Then the sharp facial features, the thick blue eyes, the moplike hair, the lopey Texas drawl. McConaughey has not just the physique but the mien to play a heroic leading man, like Charlton Heston or Burt Lancaster. And like Heston and Lancaster, he frequently displays his emotions unabashedly, definitively. When Carl Lee misspeaks on the witness stand, you can tell the slip-up cut him to the quick merely by looking at his face; when his star witness is discredited, there's no doubting how much Jake feels the sting of impending loss. McConaughey has the capacity for great subtlety, and he employs it generously in the smaller, quieter moments, especially those with Sandra Bullock and Ashley Judd.
But Schumacher can't abide subtlety for long, as seen in the posture of righteous indignation pervading most every scene. McConaughey and Kevin Spacey, in particular, spend so much time turning their noses up in their contempt for one another, you begin to wonder what they're smelling that makes them look so uncomfortable.
The result of all the endless proselytizing, in which the wicked are defeated only when the good guys condescend to their level, is a film more cynical and jaded than it would care to admit. In the end, it's difficult to say what's more reprehensible--the inveterate, blood-borne, deep-seated racism bred into every resident of Canton, Mississippi, or the presumption made so arrogantly by the makers of A Time to Kill that no one, not even a Southern liberal, is immune to it.
--Arnold Wayne Jones
A Time to Kill. Warner Bros. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Samuel L. Jackson. Written by Akiva Goldsman. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Now showing.
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 Observer's biggest stories.