The Mississippi Laywer
"A Time to Kill" was the first novel which John Grisham published, it was also the first John Grisham novel I read and whilst it wasn't the first of his novels to be adapted into a movie it was the first one I watched. And to be honest "A Time to Kill" still remains for me not only Grisham's best novel but also the best movie adaptation delivering a multi-layered story which whilst differs slightly from the book manages to stay as close to it as possible. With a story which whilst essentially a court room drama where two lawyers battle it out in front of a judge it is also a powerful movie which covers murder, rape, vengeance and with it being set in the south also racial tensions. And it is compelling from the early scenes of a young coloured girl being attacked by two rednecks through to the tension of the courts decision, making it a movie which you can't take your eyes off of despite being an impressive 149 minutes long.
When 10 year old Tonya Hailey (Rae'Ven Larrymore Kelly) is viciously attacked and raped by two racist rednecks her father Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson - Die Hard: With a Vengeance) takes justice into his own hands and shoots them dead as they are lead through the court building to face trial. Arrested for their murder Hailey turns to white lawyer Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey - Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) to try and get him off, not the easiest task when he killed the men in broad daylight in front of countless witnesses. And it is a task which is made even harder as the case causes the KKK to rise up and cause trouble as they try to scare Brigance and his assistant Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock - The Net) off of defending a black man.
Now it has to be said that "A Time to Kill" is a movie with a multi layered storyline no more so than how it starts. In some shockingly disturbing scenes we witness a 10 year old coloured girl being brutally raped and attacked by two rednecks, a series of scenes which bring to life the words in Grisham's novel. We then see them being arrested in a scene full of racial spite and than we have the child's father murdering the two rednecks, shooting them as they are lead through the court on their way to trial. All of which builds this very powerful storyline before it even gets to what is in fact the real story of lawyer Jake Brigance trying to get Carl Lee Hailey off for the murder of these two rednecks. But rather than feeling like padding these opening scenes which also introduces us to almost all the pivotal characters really help set the scene, the racial tensions which flow through the county and makes you think about what you would do if it was your child who had been raped and beaten to with an inch of their life especially if you had no faith in a bigoted judicial system.
But that is just the build up, the introduction to what is the main story, that of Jake Brigance going toe to toe with D.A. Rufus Buckley in the courtroom as he tries to get Hailey off the murder rap. Now it has to be said there is an element of the expected in the main storyline because of it being basically a battle of lawyers trying to out smart each other. But it works and director Joel Schumacher has managed to create a powerful courtroom drama which gets close to matching the power of "Anatomy of a Murder". There is something pleasing about watching underdog Brigance not only get one over of Buckley but also on Judge Omar Noose who seems to be quite bigoted. And it has to be said that the writing of the courtroom battles is brilliant managing to capture the tension but also the slight humour of the legal one-upmanship. But none of that compares to the awesome, yes awesome, closing speech delivered by Matthew McConaughey as Brigance which gets you onto the edge of your seat hanging on every single word.
There is also another element to "A Time to Kill" and that is the racial tension as the brother of the murdered rednecks calls upon the KKK to cause trouble. It means that whilst there is the drama of the courtroom there is as much drama outside the courtroom with Brigance coming under attack from the KKK for his support of Hailey. And like with the courtroom scenes the scenes outside are just as good with a battle on the grounds of the court between Hailey's supporters and the KKK being just as memorable.
All of which makes "A Time to Kill" a compelling movie which gets better and better not just the longer it goes on but every time you watch it. But it does have one problem and in trying to stay loyal to Grisham's book it ends up having far too many characters to deal with. Whilst the central characters such as Brigance and Hailey end up being well defined the rest end up being 2 dimensional. And it is a shame as characters such as Brigance's mentor Lucien Wilbanks and the helpful Ellen Roark are interesting but not developed enough. It ends up making the movie feel a little crowded with characters introduced which you know are pivotal but then never fully developed.
Despite this over crowding you have to say every actor, even those such as Donald Sutherland and Brenda Fricker who end up in under developed characters, deliver great performances. But whilst featuring an impressive cast which also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Oliver Platt, Kiefer Sutherland and Patrick McGoohan "A Time to Kill" very much belongs to Matthew McConaughey as Jake Brigance. McConaughey seems not only to be in tune with his southern lawyer character but delivers a performance which feels for the most natural especially when it comes to the courtroom action. Yes the whole romantic subplot which bubbles between him and Ellen Roark played by Sandra Bullock feels a bit forced but the rest of the performance is pure class and shows what McConaughey is capable off when he is given a decent script.
What this all boils down to is that "A Time to Kill" is for me still the best adaptation of a John Grisham novel and is one of those rare movies which actually does the book justice. It is over crowded with characters due to it trying to be loyal to the novel but it is also compelling be it the powerful opening scenes, the racial tension outside the court or the drama in the courtroom. And it features Matthew McConaughey at his best especially during his closing statement in the courtroom which borders on being spellbinding.
Tags: John Grisham