A Time to Kill (1996)

D: Joel Schumacher
S: Matthew McConaughy, Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock.

The fourth John Grisham adaptation is easily the weakest to date. Despite a promising premise and a strong cast, it never settles into a steady rhythm and goes on for too long. It never generates the necessary level of tension, relying instead on its inflammatory subject matter to produce conflict between the characters and engage the audience.

Following the rape of his young daughter by a gang of white youths, enraged Samuel L. Jackson guns them down. His case is taken by young lawyer McConaughy (pleading temporary insanity), aided by Sandra Bullock, Oliver Platt and Donald Sutherland. Meanwhile smarmy D.A. Kevin Spacey is determined to prove a point of law on his way to the Senator's Office and local Ku Klux Klan members Kurtwood Smith and Kiefer Sutherland come out of the woodwork to make some points of their own.

The dynamite potential of the material can't have been lost at the pitch stage, and with a cast of this calibre lined up, the proposition must have seemed quite attractive all round. Schumacher must have seemed the ideal choice following the terrific job he did on The Client. But though the script has the basic points right and the actors do their level best, it never comes to life and eventually tries the patience of the audience with endless protraction and legal technobabble, until it finally collapses under the its own inertia and becomes boring.

Simply, A Time to Kill is not nearly as interesting as it ought to have been. It was perhaps so interesting as a script that Schumacher felt all he needed to do was turn up, and the film has no real sense of what it's about or where it's going. Characters are vividly drawn thanks to capable performances and there are plenty of live issues from racism to vigilantism to the death penalty being tossed around and discussed. But the actual plot is lazily constructed, serving as a backdrop to a thickly applied Southern atmosphere which is so laid back as to be practically parodic. The result is that there is very little to hang onto, and the central relationship between Jackson and McConaughy does not come into focus until the film's final stages (where Jackson explains that he chose a white man to defend him because white men are the enemy - a strong and interesting concept which is not explored thereafter but merely sets up the closing argument in court).

It is proof positive (if any were needed) that a concept cannot drive a movie, and that a firm directorial hand is always necessary no matter how saleable the product. It is obvious that whatever bubble Schumacher was living in for the past few years has finally burst. This is a pity, but does not excuse the fact that the film makes heavy demands on its audience for very little reward and provides very little entertainment or stimulation despite its obvious wish to do so.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.