A Time to Kill (1996)

R   |    |  Crime, Drama, Thriller

A Time to Kill (1996) Poster

In Canton, Mississippi, a fearless young lawyer and his assistant defend a black man accused of murdering two white men who raped his ten-year-old daughter, inciting violent retribution and revenge from the Ku Klux Klan.

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  • Samuel L. Jackson at an event for A Time to Kill (1996)
  • Ashley Judd in A Time to Kill (1996)
  • Ashley Judd and Wynonna Judd at an event for A Time to Kill (1996)
  • Samuel L. Jackson at an event for A Time to Kill (1996)
  • Kevin Spacey in A Time to Kill (1996)
  • Matthew McConaughey at an event for A Time to Kill (1996)

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1 December 2011 | TheFilmFreak1
| Populist Silliness
The premise of 'A Time to Kill' is relatively simple: little black girl is raped by big white men, bigger black father (played by designated scary black man Samuel L. Jackson) is vexed by said rape and in retaliation kills the offending white males (and injures a white officer of the peace in the process), and the media (mostly white), district attorney (white), and Ku Klux Klan (white, surprisingly) descend upon him like vultures. Jack Brigance, a hotshot lawyer who doesn't play by the rules (though would rather get Sandra Bullock to break them for him), takes black father's case.

Of course, with a simple premise comes a need for substantial queries: can a single man or a state better serve justice, and should a judiciary be designed around idealistic or pragmatic sentiments? The problem is, though, that the film tries to answers these questions. From 'A Time to Kill's opening moments the audience is made painfully aware of the director's adamancy that we invest our sympathies with Jackson's character. The quick-cutting and distorted angles of the film's introductory rape sequence offer vicarious punishment for the viewer that makes us not only feel nothing but emphatic passion for the raped child, but also unconditional hatred towards her attackers (who are by no means the most difficult people to despise). This means that, regardless of the odd Horatian jab at insincere affirmative action advocates, Joel Schumacher clearly wants us to feel that the cosmically correct outcome of this trial is for the father of the victim to be found innocent of charges that were very rightly made. In other words, this film might as well be called 'Vigilante Justice: The Wave of the Future'.

The filmmakers go even further by forcing the audience to be diametrically opposed to and even repelled by all parties featured in the film who are opposed to Schumacher's desired conclusion, even if they are parties of a somewhat honourable disposition (such as the son of the policeman who gets shot). By doing this, 'A Time to Kill' supports fascist ideals of vigilante justice, thus is conservative propaganda. Yet it tries to cover this up by throwing the race card on the proverbial table (a card which essentially permits persecuted minority groups to be placed above the law). This means that 'A Time to Kill' combines two of the worst attributes of both sides of the American political spectrum and in the process becomes a frightening hybrid of oligarchic ideologies and victim mentalities that nobody in their right mind would want to take credit.

Despite all this, 'A Time to Kill' is strangely dynamic drama. Maybe it's the thrill of watching Armageddon fall upon a small and decidedly fragile town, with white supremacists having Molotov cocktails thrown at them and courtrooms playing host to drunkards and snide doctors; or maybe it's because Schumacher actually does a pretty good job of directing some utterly wonderful supporting actors (Donald Sutherland, Kevin Spacey, Kurtwood Smith, Oliver Platt) and some rather mediocre main ones (Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock).

At any rate, this piece of populist exploitation works like an inexplicable charm. Unlike Grisham's novel, the film hooks you from the get-go and keeps you practically on the edge of your set until the beautifully delivered closing statement by McConaughey (his talent did not live through the 90's, but this scene is at least a marvelous requiem to it), after which things starting getting a bit anti-climatic.

Ultimately, 'A Time to Kill' is a very solid film that does not deserve to be condemned purely on the basis of its fallacious morals. Not as intelligent or well made as 'The Pelican Brief', but certainly just as thrilling.

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