A TIME TO KILL (1996)

A Time To Kill is a film that I learned about while growing through a list of films based on the works of John Grisham. I heard the name John Grisham before but a peek through this list dawned the fact on me that most of his works centers on courtroom dramas. Courtroom dramas are a favorite of mine too and every time it’s a film like “A Few Good Men”, “12 Angry Men” or for that matter “Rules Of Engagement” I fall in love with the genre. That was exactly the case with A Time To Kill. This is such an affecting and heart-wrenching film that you cannot help but fall in love with it. I am told that this film had great material to work with but I have seen a lot of good material get destroyed in the hands of amateurish filmmaking. But that’s not the case here.

A 10-year-old African American girl is brutally raped by two racist white men. They are arrested but the girl’s father Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) realizes that they have a solid chance of walking scot free or for that matter with minimal punishment. He can’t abide by that. So Carl takes the law into his own hands and kills the two men in the courtroom. Post the murders, he is arrested and faces a trial wherein he stands no chance of making it out without corporal punishment. Defending him is a lawyer Jake Tyler Brigance (Matthew McCaughey) who has very little experience of murder trials. Prosecuting him is an ambitious and ruthless District Attorney Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey) who would stop at nothing to see Lee burn. Hearing the case is a judge who is in close relation with the District Attorney and not all that sympathetic to Carl Lee. The odds are high. If all that was not enough, the trial invites the attention of the local KU KLUX KLAN who were presumed dead but swing back into action when the trial breaks loose. What is left to be seen is whether justice prevails or not?

What I loved most about this film was the fact that it was relentlessly dramatic and warm. The film never lets go of your attention. From the first scene till the last, it keeps you on the edge of your seat. It isn’t an easy task to achieve that in a courtroom drama as most films of this genre take a well-treaded path. However, in this case, the director does extremely well to keep it tight and suspenseful. The film is not only confined to the courtroom. We get a peek into the lives of the men and women involved in the case to a good length. We see how our protagonist Jake is having a hard time putting up with the case, the racial threats that come with it and maintaining a peaceful family life. We also see how Carl Lee Hailey ending up in jail affected his family and his ailing daughter. How they are near without any food or money. We also learn of the extreme damage caused by the assault on the girl which is heartbreaking. All these factors come around a full circle when we witness the trial. Thus the proceedings have a greater effect on us.

The acting all the way through is top notch. McCaughey leads from the front. I just loved the way he approached the whole matter. Throughout the film, there is a question mark on the reason as to why he is so obsessed with the case. The question is answered when right at the end, his wife realizes that he sees his daughter in the victim and was doing only what he would have done had it been his own infant daughter in place of the little Tonya. This scene is exceptionally warm and will have you limp. The closing argument that he gives is tremendous as well. I could draw parallels of the sequence with that of Kevin Costner’s essay in JFK. The way he presents the conclusion and the amount of heart that McCaughey puts into it makes it real and thought-provoking. One can watch the film for this sequence alone.

Sandra Bullock is not only a pretty face but extremely smart and vivacious in this film. Her mannerism and her actions ooze with charm and charisma. I like her in most films that she is a part off but here she takes her act a few notches ahead. Samuel L Jackson is a pleasure to watch in whatever he does and he is brilliant here as well. Playing a father who did what he had to do, he is a picture of confidence in a few sequences where he comes face to face with men who he wronged in doing what was right. Watch out for the sequence where he meets the man who he accidentally shot when he was extracting his revenge. This sequence is extremely emotional. Donald Sutherland plays an important supporting character who is not only integral to the case but who cannot enter the courtroom. Donald Sutherland’s greatest contribution to the film is him mouthing the lines that say “this is a case where justice will prevail if Lee is found guilty and prosecuted and also if he is not”. That dialog though penned by Grisham and Akiva Goldsman attains a human character when it comes out of Sutherland’s mouth and practically sums up the essence of the film. Kevin Spacey is Kevin Spacey. How can we not love this man? He is vicious and suave at the same time. I just loved his act. This would have been a lesser film without him. Kiefer Sutherland plays the KU KLUX KLAN leader and he is apt. The KLAN appears to be dangerous and threatening and you are constantly in discomfort about the fact that what they would do next. That’s the best we can ask from the KLAN in a film I guess.

The film is shot and edited keeping in mind the mood of the film. It isn’t lighting fast and it didn’t need to be lighting fast. It has its own way of going about the things and it does so with confidence and élan. Joel Schumacher understands the content and gives the screenplay enough time to have that effect on you. The execution is near perfect per say that I couldn’t think of a better way of doing the things that are shown done here. Final thoughts! If you are a fan of courtroom dramas, then this film is unmissable. If you are a fan of thrillers, then this film is unmissable. If you are a fan of dramas then this film is unmissable. This film is unmissable, period.

Rating : 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

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