I have not read "A Time to Kill" by John Grisham, and perhaps that would have helped understand the film better. But perhaps not. I hear this is the most faithful Grisham adaption yet, and if that is true, I can see why so many publishers turned down the novel when Grisham introduced it as his first work.
"A Time to Kill" is one of those films that is seriously confused and wants to do too many things at once. It wants to be a suspenseful crowd-pleasing thriller and, at the same time, a film dedicated to exploring certain social and moral questions. Let's face it, those two types of films do not go together in Hollywood, which is why "Dead Man Walking" had to be made independently.
The story involves a young lawyer named Jake (Matthew McConaughy) out to defend a black man named Carl (Samuel L. Jackson) from murdering two hillbillies that brutally raped his young daughter. The day before the rapists' trial, Carl hid in a closet in the courthouse and when the rapists were brought through the building, he charged out and shot both of them dead. To help out with the defense, Jack accepts the help of a former law student (Sandra Bullock), who proves that her role in this film was totally unnecessary, and put in the film only for marketing purposes.
Meanwhile, one of the rapist's kid brother (Kiefer Sutherland) was angered that a black man killed his brother and decided to act out a revenge. All of this leads to a shooting in front of the courthouse, a kidnapping, a brutal beating, and race riot. I'll admit that all of this held my attention greatly throughout the film, in addition to the courtroom scenes. What I later objected to was the film's handling of ethical questions and its use of formulas in the plot.
The main question that the film constantly asks, over and over again, is whether a black man gets a fair trial from a white jury. Sure they can, but that doesn't mean that the man has to be acquitted in order for the trial to be fair. This film, however, doesn't seem to think so. Besides that, there several gaping holes in the plot used for conveniences. For example, there is an unknown character called Mickey Mouse, who is a member of the Klan, and, for reasons unknown, is helping the members of the defense team escape from serious dangers of the other members of the Klan. After Bullock is kidnapped by Sutherland and company, and left for dead in the wilderness, this unknown person comes and saves her---and we NEVER find out who he is and why he is helping out the people he should be terrorizing.
And speaking of the Sutherland character's reign of terror, it's amazing how witless the police and the Bullock character are in stopping him throughout the film. There's a scene when Sutherland becomes a sniper from a building across the street from the courthouse and tries to shoot Jake as he comes out, shooting one of the guards instead. Now you'd think since there are dozens of police around, it would be easy to surround and capture the sniper. No such luck. From what we could see, no one seemed to even care that a sniper was still on the loose. Even after Bullock, was rescued by Mickey Mouse, she never, ever mentioned who her kidnapper was, nor was it even questioned. Why was this? Simple. The Sutherland character was needed throughout the film to add continual suspense, although logically, he should have been out of the picture.
Besides Bullock's character, there another thankless character. He is Jake's assistant played by Oliver Platt. There seems to be one reason for his character to be in the movie--to supply a number of one-liners for the audience. In my opinion, one-liners show a major weakness in "serious" films when used. It demonstrates that the filmmakers are not confident that the story and dialogue alone are enough to keep the audience's attention, and so use them to make the audience laugh to reassure everyone that they are watching an entertaining film.
But enough of the film's many minor problems. What about the film's message here? It is clear that Carl is indeed guilty of murder. We saw how he planned for hours to murder the men who raped his daughter. The lawyers argue that it was temporary insanity, etc that caused him to kill. In desperation, Jake asks the jury to close their eyes as he recounts the rape in detail as part of his closing arguement. After describing everything that took place, he adds on one final line..."The girl is white". We then see members of the jury with tears in their eyes.
In the very next scene, a girl comes out yelling "He's free! He's free!". Wait a minute! Do juries base their verdicts on their emotions or on the facts? Most of all, why weren't there any scenes that showed the jury deliberating and what they were really thinking after their emotions worn off. I'll tell you why. They couldn't show the delibertion because NO JURY could acquit a man of such a crime, no matter how much the defense's closing arguements touched their hearts. What is the message? That someone is justified in killing if it is a form of revenge for a previous crime done to them?
This film should have had the courage to say that murder is NOT OK in this situation, because in reality, there would not be an acquittal. But since dollars were at stake, the filmmakers were more concerned about sparing the audiences' feelings than they were about presenting a responsible message. If people start killing as a form of revenge, the makers of this film should be held responsible. What a socially irresponsible film this is!