In A Time to Kill, a 10-year-old black girl in Mississippi is raped and tortured by two drunk white men. The girl’s aggrieved father tracks the rapists down and shoots them dead. For his defense, he hires a local white lawyer who has to face down the entire history of Southern racism.
This high-concept lawyer-as-hero story is, of course, by lawyer-as-publishing phenomenon John Grisham. And the back story of the author’s attachment to his first novel, written in 1984 — how it was rejected by 12 publishers before it found a home; how no one gave the poor li’l thing any mind until he had written The Firm; how Grisham held his firstborn favorite close, negotiating for what he felt would be exactly the right director, cast, and sensibility — has become legend. But let’s get real: Such an overbusy In the Heat of the Night-type thriller was hardly in need of coddling. And even supposing it was, this adaptation by director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who previously worked together on The Client) is so much more cautious, prettied up, and time warped than the original that it can only frustrate purists/readers — and nonplus audiences newly coming to the story.
Who among readers knew, for instance, that Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), the combative, debt-ridden counsel for the defense, in fact exhibits the refined, sensual charm and stylish wire-rim glasses of a GQ model? That the jailed working-stiff father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), is actually articulate enough to make a cogent New Republican speech about the state of race relations? That Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), the mouthy, ambitious law student who joins the case, is so warm and Bullocky — and such a big part of the plot? (Who, for that matter, knew that air-conditioning has yet to be imported to Mississippi? Everyone sweats prodigiously in Schumacher’s South, like they’re all cats on a hot tin roof.)
The moviegoer who, on the other hand, comes to Grisham’s story fresh has got to wonder just what era of the South y’all have wandered into — 1956? 1996? In A Time to Kill — a slick, synthetic, self-important drama that thinks it is saying more than it is simply because of its subject matter — Schumacher wants it both ways. In such a setting, totemic camera shots do the work of real tension or content: Jackson’s moist, burning eyes seen in the dark as he hunts his prey; McConaughey’s handsome jaw lit just right as he realizes the Ku Klux Klan is after him; Bullock’s raggedy bangs doing that thing they do as she tries to figure out if her character is there out of a passion for justice or as a siren to tempt Jake. And a parade of prestige-project supporting actors — Kevin Spacey, Charles S. Dutton, Brenda Fricker, Patrick McGoohan, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland — are left, in the absence of deeper direction, to substitute stock portrayals for real characters. Spacey is the sharky prosecutor; Kiefer S. acts the KKK bigot; Donald S. vamps it up as Lucien, the bearded, alky Obi-Wan Kenobi to McConaughey’s legal-beagle Luke Skywalker, etc.
From the car Jake drives, we know that A Time to Kill is set in the present, but a moviegoer can be forgiven for getting confused: By the sights and sounds of Schumacher’s romanticized production, it is forever the 1960s in the South. Yet by the script, this too-neat interpretation of a too-messy book is strictly a product of the have-it-all ’90s. ”Your job is to find justice no matter how hard she hides herself from you,” Lucien tells Jake. ”America is a war and you are on the other side,” Carl Lee tells Jake. Look how gorgeous McConaughey is, Schumacher tells his audience. Everyone is taken care of; no one’s career gets hurt. It’s the best-selling American way. C