A Time to Kill

Talk about your white trash! And I don't only mean them two sleazy boys in this here film. There's something slightly amiss in what could have been an interesting and gutsy analysis of race relations in the America. Samuel L. Jackson is cast in the role of Carl Lee Haily in an attempt to give this film some black credibility, but nevertheless it remains a white man's vision of Dixie and it's unresolved difficulties between races. Wherein the problem lies is a puzzle to me. Perhaps John Grisham, writer of the best-selling novel, scenarist Akiva Goldsman and director Joel Schumacher felt so secure about the success of their last cinematic collaboration, The Client, that they let the deeper issues insinuated by many topics here at hand disappear too easily into a neatly constructed plot line. One is supposed to notice a racially charged atmosphere, but all there seems to be on screen is the pretence of one.

Jackson plays a Mississippi factory worker whose ten-year-old daughter is brutally raped and left for dead. This does not make for good relations no matter who you are. The incensed father, in an effort to make sure that justice will be done, despite a system suspect for its prejudices, shoots and kills the men in order to avenge his daughter's violent loss of innocence. This is no way to kill a mockingbird. And so, a young and inexperienced lawyer named Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) is called in to defend the Afro-American father. Of course, he'll have to keep on his toes to do battle in court against the ruthless and ambitious prosecutor Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey). Whenever he becomes disillusioned, however, he can always get a moral boost by calling upon the advice of ex-mentor, ex-attorney, and alcoholic Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland).

Freddie Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland) gets so riled up about his brother's death that he decides to call on the KKK for some assistance. After all, he was one of the family, even if he did rape a child. (Kiefer Sutherland certainly has a nastier pair of lips than his father when they curl up in mindless hatred.) The Klan gets up to all sorts of nasty, vicious, and dreadful things, just like in the good old days, and this brings out civil rights activists carrying placards around in protest. These events take their toll on young lawyer Jake's private life, who must go it alone when his wife and daughter run off to safety. Danger looms everywhere and even the family dog can't sure of what tomorrow will bring.

In a hopeless attempt to manipulate audience sympathies, it brings along a lot of mush. Predictable and old-fashioned, these techniques don't wash as well as they used to. Some of them, in the past, might have been grouped together with titles in the teaser, using such phrases as 'SEE: a debarred, alcoholic lawyer enter the courtroom to hear the closing statement, although he swore never to enter a courtroom again. SEE: a black woman slap a Klan member in the face. SEE: the young and hopeful lawyer whose family values are so solid he never yields to hanky-panky with his brilliant and attractive assistant. SEE: the family look on while the father who sought retribution is taken away. SEE: the bad cop get justice. SEE: the daughter on the courthouse lawn. SEE: the symbolic mixed picnic.' Most memorable of all, perhaps, is the desolate, disillusioned picture of Jake sitting atop a smoldering homestead, distraught at the loss of his dog. Once we see this scene, we know all that is to follow. And it takes some time to get there. So much time, in fact, that even some of the characters seem to forget things. It is an odd revelation, indeed, when Jake's wife returns, in what assumably is meant to be a moment of reunion and communion, to tell her husband that she realizes his actions have not been motivated by his ambition or hunger for fame, but by the reasons he had already told her at the beginning of the film.

This movie seems to have been crafted as a vehicle for the creation of a new star. Matthew McConaughey has suddenly had his face (and body) plastered on the cover of most American magazines and you can't beat that for speedy hype. Many compare him to Paul Newman and this comparison cannot be denied, especially since it seems to manifest itself in the attractive smile, the protruding cheekbones, the intense brow line and the thoughtful open lips as well as the winsome approach. Caught in the proper angle or profile even his nose appears smaller in a Newman kind of way. Yet there is also something of Sean Penn in all this facial appeal. He reacts like Newman, walks like Newman, and even smokes his cigar like Newman, almost deliberately, throughout the first third of the film, firmly establishing this parallel. All of this, tacked on to a thoroughly competent performance, makes one wonder what he will be like in his next film and if we will ever get to see what McConaughey himself is really like. Perhaps he really is like Paul Newman. On the other hand, perhaps it's just the long, hot summer of the South that brought these characteristics out in the Texan.

First catching eyes for his work in Dazed and Confused, McConaughey has already worked with such notables as John Sayles and Herbert Ross. Schumacher makes the most of his new star's talents on screen to show that he thinks Matthew's the best thing since nipples on a bat outfit. Originally cast as one of the rapists, he wasn't one to shy from an open opportunity and told Schumacher that he was the right one to play the role of Jake. Warner already has McConaughey hog-tied up with a three-film contract, but Universal and Fox are chomping at the bits. Firmly embedded in the studio's mind, the press's mind and, to a large extent, the public's mind as STAR in capital letters, the final talent test may well be his performance opposite Jodie Foster in Carl Sagan's Contact (directed by Robert Zemeckis).

But back to the film at hand. The defense attorney's closing statement in court is a tough monologue to do and not written well, but McConaughey musters up determination and manages to get through it. That alone is an acting feat. Would the judge have allowed this closing statement, considering that he previously alerted everyone that this was not a rape trial and was not to be treated as one? Nevertheless, the new male sex symbol appears to have a lot on the ball and seems capable of going the full yard. As he himself says, 'Wherever the ball lies, you've got to hit it. You've got to create your shot ... There's a feeling you can get when you hit the ball on the screws and you don't even feel it on the club. It's so pure. It's about precision. It's about the gut. It's about the head. It's very internal, but at the same time you can get aggressive.' Sounds good. Looks good. Let's wait for the final count.

Sandra Bullock appears sporadically throughout the film as Ellen Roark, the clever, adept law student and daughter of a well-known New England legal wizard, lending support where it might not otherwise be found (,and at the right price). Superb Points for Patrick McGoohan who makes the most of every moment at his disposal in creating a very convincing Judge Noose out of what could have been a thankless role. Brenda Fricker (who plays Jake's secretary Ethel Twitty) is always a joy to see.

Ultimately, Grisham must be the one held accountable for this film being either good or bad. He had script approval, director approval, and casting approval on leading roles, as well as being a co-producer. This movie was based upon his first novel which he admits will always be special to him. He says, 'It really came from the heart ... It's very autobiographical. That's why I held on to it for so long. I wanted to make sure I had some input into it.' He further adds that in the final result he finds 'a film that captures all the energy, passion, rage and emotion that I hoped to convey in my book.' Perhaps it was too close for comfort.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett