A Time to Kill (film)

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A Time to Kill

DVD cover
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Produced by William M. Elvin
John Grisham
Hunt Lowry
Arnon Milchan
Michael G. Nathanson
Written by John Grisham (novel A Time To Kill)
Akiva Goldsman (screenplay)
Starring Matthew McConaughey
Sandra Bullock
Samuel L. Jackson
Kevin Spacey
Music by Elliot Goldenthal
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) 24 July 1996
Running time 149 min.
Language English
IMDb profile

A Time to Kill is the name of a 1996 feature film adaptation of the 1989 legal thriller A Time to Kill by John Grisham. The movie made $108,766,007 in box office receipts, including $19,628,271 for the first five days of its theatrical release.

The movie was filmed in Canton, Mississippi; "Clanton", where the book is set, is a fictional location.


[edit] Plot summary

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

Two white racist Mississippi men (actors Nicky Katt and Doug Hutchison) are driving around drunk through the woods near Clanton, Mississippi during the summertime when they come across a 10-year-old black girl named Tonya (Rae'Ven Larrymore Kelly). The two drunk men proceed to violently rape Tonya then dump her in a nearby river for dead. Tonya doesn't die though, and the county's black sheriff, Ozzie Walls (Charles S. Dutton) (who's popular in town because he previously played football for the St. Louis Rams), quickly pieces together who raped Tonya and finds the two perpetrators drinking lazily in a bar. He arrests them, and word spreads in the small, relatively quiet county about the brutal rape.

Word eventually gets to Tonya's father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), a good-hearted man who works at a nearby lumber mill, and he is horrified to see what has happened to his young daughter. He goes to see Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), an easygoing white lawyer in town whose bleeding heart often leaves him with clients who can't pay. Carl Lee asks Jake about the chances of the two rapists being acquitted, although their crime is obvious; Jake tells him similar things have happened in nearby counties—and hints at the area's deep-seated racism that still infests the land. Carl Lee calmly thanks Jake, then quietly leaves and acquires an M-16, goes to the county courthouse and waits patiently. When the two rapists are brought in for an arraignment, Carl Lee comes out of a closet suddenly and opens fire on the two men at close range—killing both—while also accidentally injuring Deputy Looney (Chris Cooper), who was hit when a bullet ricocheted off the stairs. Carl Lee drops his weapon and walks home before Sheriff Walls shows up and arrests him without incident.

The courthouse shooting begins to get national attention in the media and sides are formed (mostly along racial lines) as to whether Carl Lee is now guilty of murder. Despite Carl Lee having very little money, his defense is taken up by Jake, who now feels guilty at not having informed the authorities of Carl Lee's intentions to kill the rapists—intentions he suspected after their talk. He intends to defend Carl Lee Hailey with a plea of not guilty by insanity, trying to convince the jurors that Carl Lee had a momentary lapse in sanity after the rape.

Jake and his wife, Carla (Ashley Judd), are at first excited about seeing Jake on the news so much during pre-trial happenings. This excitement quickly ends as the Ku Klux Klan begins to organize in the area and a brother of one of the dead rapists, Freddie Lee (Kiefer Sutherland), calls Brigance and his family with death threats. Making matters worse for Jake is that the district attorney, Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey), is out for blood (and the death penalty, more literally) and has plenty of resources at his disposal. The presiding judge, Judge Omar Noose, seems to be an old-timer white judge, as he's friends with Buckley and denies Jake a change of venue to a different county as to seek a more impartial jury.

The jury is formed—with no African-American members. Jake seeks help for his defense team, unsuccessfully trying to draw in his friend and sleazy divorce lawyer Harry Rex Vonner (Oliver Platt), though Harry Rex will come aboard later. He seeks guidance from long-time liberal activist Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland), a great civil rights lawyer who was disbarred for hitting cops on a picket line; he now lives nearby and spends all his time drinking and tutoring Jake. The only full time help Jake has is his secretary, Ethel (Brenda Fricker), who's wary that Jake has taken on such a racially explosive case that mirrors no case he's ever handled before.

Jake is then caught off guard after being approached by Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), a fiery Massachusetts ACLU liberal whose father is a famous attorney to Hollywood stars and starlets. Her offers to help with the case for free are turned down at first by Jake, but then accepted when he realizes he needs all the help he can get. During their conversations together (which borders more and more on romance by the week), they have ethical discussions about political/legal topics—with their disagreements emphasizing the large difference between a northern liberal and southern liberal. (As Jake says: "I am a liberal, Roark. What am I not—is a card-carrying ACLU radical.")

The trial begins amid much attention from the media and residents of the county—specifically the large black population). Blows are traded back and forth between the defense and prosecution as witnesses hit the stand. Deputy Looney is called to the stand for the prosecution but unexpectedly tells the jury that he would have done the same thing as the defendant and that Carl Lee should be exonerated immediately. Jake gets more good news when Carl Lee reveals he tricked some black lawyers (who have some subtle racist problems of their own) into forking over $6,000, believing that they will then have the chance to represent Carl Lee in court and win the important case, which is too valuable to be lost by an inexperienced white attorney, they say. Carl Lee's wise finagling gives Jake some more money, but the KKK is doing what it can to stop his good fortune.

Freddie Lee uses a rifle and shoots at Jake outside the courtroom—but misses and hits a national guardsman, who is there to quelch any violence between the volatile groups keeping a close eye on the trial. The KKK, who has a member inside the sheriff's police force, burns a cross on Jake's lawn, forcing Jake to send his wife and young daughter away while the trial continues. The KKK then sends a member to Jake's house to blow it up, but Sheriff Ozzie is tipped off by an informant who calls himself "Mickey Mouse" and the attack is averted. The KKK then strike at Ethel, holding her helpless while they beat her old husband on their front porch. The husband dies from a stroke brought on by the beating and Ethel passively chastises Jake for taking the case despite her warnings.

A group of black teenagers in the neighborhood, angry at the KKK's presence and dealings, take their revenge by throwing a Molotov cocktail at a KKK grand dragon, who appeared in a street parade to rile up racist supporters. As the grand dragon burns to death in the street, chaos ensues outside the courthouse as the police lose control of the crowd. Jake is cut in the leg by a KKK member and Sheriff Ozzie Walls is beaten (not severely) by a KKK member while his racist deputy does nothing.

The next big challenge in the courtroom involves the dueling psychologists—one for the defense and one for the prosecution—who will each make a case to the jury as to why the defendant is or is not legally insane. The prosecution presents Dr. Wilbert Rodeheaver (Anthony Heald), a polished witness who says Carl Lee was most definitely not insane at the time of the killings. He is cross-examined very effectively by Jake, who got his questions from Roark. Jake manages to show the jury that Dr. Rodeheaver has testified dozens of time in court—but only for the prosecution—and never once for a defense. This makes Dr. Rodeheaver look like he's only being told what he was told to say. Jake then calls Dr. Terrell Bass (M. Emmet Walsh), who was put on to him by Lucien. Bass testifies for the defense and all seems well, but Buckley surprises everyone by dredging up an expunged, decades-old arrest of Bass for statutory rape. Bass is discredited and the defense embarrassed.

Jake's attraction to Roark grows, and then almost have an affair before Jake gains his wits and goes home—only to see that the KKK finally succeeded in burning down his house. To top it off, Roark is pulled over on a rural road by the racist deputy with KKK members close behind. They beat Roark and leave her to die out in the wilderness. She is saved, though, by the informant Mickey Mouse, who's identity is revealed as one of the clanmen working with Cobb. The next morning, Jake sits on the still-smoking steps of his house and meets with Harry Rex, who says it's time to listen to everyone else around him and quit the case. Jake refuses, saying his resolve is as strong as ever, and to quit now would to be mean all he's lost is for nothing.

Carl Lee learns that his daughter is getting better, but will never have children. He then has to take the stand in his own defense and offers his practiced answers to Jake's tailored questions, trying to evoke sympathy from the jury and try to express an ambiguity of whether he did or did not have control over himself during the actual killings. Buckley comes in for the kill after that and quickly gets Carl Lee angry, asking him if he had the right to take the law into his own hands and kill the two men. Carl Lee responds with a now famous line: "Yes they deserved to die and I hope they burn in Hell!" The defense is dealt another setback. When the jury secretly discusses the case in a restaurant (against the rules), all but one are leaning toward a guilty verdict, and Carl Lee's fate looks sealed.

Jake goes to see Roark in a hospital and feels terrible for her. He is then comforted by his wife, who has returned. Out of options, Jake goes to see Carl Lee in his prison cell and Carl Lee tells him how to turn the jury in their favor:

"Well, you're white and I'm black. See Jake, you think just like them—that's why I picked you; you are one of them , don't you see?. Oh, you think you ain't because you eat in Claude's and you are out there trying to get me off on TV talking about black and white, but the fact is you are just like all the rest of them. When you look at me, you don't see a man, you see a black man... America is a wall and you on the other side. How's a black man ever going to get a fair trial with the enemy on the bench and in the jury box?. My life in white hands? You Jake—that's how. You are my secret weapon, because you one of the bad guys. You don't mean to be, but you are. It's how you was raised. "Nigger, negro, black, African-American;" no matter how you see me, you see me different; you see me like that jury sees me; you are them. Now throw out your points of law, Jake. If you was on that jury, what would it take to convince you to set me free? That's how you save my ass. That's how you save us both."

The courthouse is packed to see the attorneys' closing speeches. Buckley gives his, saying that Carl Lee took the law into his own hands and should be punished. Jake then walks up to the jury and begins to ramble, saying that he's not going to say what was originally planned—a bunch of fancy lawyer tricks. Lucien walks in the courthouse to hear the speech—the first time he's entered a courthouse in years—and this motivates Jake. Jake tells the jury to close their eyes and listen to a story.

He describes, in slow and painful detail, the rape of a young 10-year-old girl—mirroring Tonya's rape. At the end of the story, as courtroom listeners and jury members alike are moved, he tells the jury members to think about the story some more—but imagine the victim was white. That's where the speech ends. Hours later after deliberation, a young black boy flies out of the courthouse and screams "He's innocent!" Jubiliation ensues amongst hundreds of black supporters outside. Sheriff Ozzie Walls arrests Freddie Lee as well as his racist deputy.

The movie ends with Jake taking his wife and daughter to a family cookout at Carl Lee's house. Carl Lee is surprised by their uninvited appearance, but understands it's to show that the two really are friends, not just distant acquaintances, as Carl Lee had once said.

[edit] Cast & Crew

[edit] Trivia

  • The film takes place in Canton, Mississippi, rather than the fictional "Clanton" of the novel.
  • Paul Newman was offered the part of Lucien Wilbanks, but declined since he doesn't like being in films with violence. Donald Sutherland was then cast as the hard drinking, retired law school professor and unofficial father figure to Jake Brigance.
  • Kiefer Sutherland and father Donald Sutherland appear together in the movie.
  • John Grisham has worked with director Joel Schumacher before on the film adaptation of The Client with Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. While only his book was the basis for his involvement with that film, Grisham took an active role in this film's production as a producer. The reason, as Grisham explained it, was that A Time to Kill was his first book and the favorite one out of all of his works, and he wanted to see its adaptation done to his standards.
  • There were several names being mentioned for the part of Jake Brigance before it went to Matthew McConaughey such as Val Kilmer, John Cusack, Robert Downey Jr., Aidan Quinn and Brad Pitt. Woody Harrelson had lobbied for the part and Kevin Costner was close to being cast, but Grisham axed Costner since the actor wanted complete control of the project. McConaughey was originally going to play Freddie Lee Cobb, but put his hat in the ring by speaking to Joel Schumacher and convincing him for an audition. Schumacher videotaped the audition and decided that McConaughey was right for the part. He then approached Grisham and showed him the audition, which sold Grisham on casting him. Donald Sutherland's son Kiefer Sutherland was then cast as the villain.
  • Bruce Dern was the original choice for the role of Judge Omar Noose. However, Patrick McGoohan was cast when he proved unavailable.
  • Samuel L. Jackson's line of "Yes, they deserve to die and I hope they burn in Hell!" from the movie was used repeatedly in the ads and trailers, and has become a well known line by Jackson. He used it once during a promotional interview at the San Diego Comic Con for Snakes on a Plane, and Dave Chappelle used the line to close out his "Samuel L. Jackson Beer" skit. Dave Chappelle also used the line in the "Star Wars Jedi Scandal" skit, after being asked if he believes the Jedi knights should die for sexually assaulting jedi padawan he replies "Yes they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell".

[edit] Criticism

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

There has been discussion on many internet forums regarding the line in Jake's summation to the jury "Now, imagine she's white". This line has sparked debate and criticism of the writers as well as its true interpretation and meaning.

The film has also been criticized for its feel good ending. Carl Lee went completely free after shooting two people and wounding another. Some argue that even if the Jury believed his insanity plea he would have still been remanded to serve some time in prison or undergo more psychological evaluation.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

Other books is The Firm and The Client