A Time to Kill (film)

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A Time to Kill
Time to kill poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Produced by Arnon Milchan
John Grisham
Michael Nathanson
Hunt Lowry
Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman
Based on A Time to Kill 
by John Grisham
Starring Matthew McConaughey
Sandra Bullock
Samuel L. Jackson
Kevin Spacey
Brenda Fricker
Oliver Platt
Charles S. Dutton
Ashley Judd
Patrick McGoohan
Donald Sutherland
Music by Elliot Goldenthal
Cinematography Peter Menzies Jr.
Edited by William Steinkamp
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • July 24, 1996 (1996-07-24)
Running time 149 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $40 million (est)[1]
Box office $152,266,007[1]

A Time to Kill is a 1996 drama film adaptation of John Grisham's 1989 novel of the same name, directed by Joel Schumacher. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kevin Spacey star, with Oliver Platt, Ashley Judd, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, and Patrick McGoohan appearing in supporting roles.

Set in Canton, Mississippi, the film involves the rape of a young girl, the arrest of the rapists, their subsequent murder by the girl's father, and the father's trial for murder. The film was a critical and commercial success, making nearly $110 million at the U.S. box office.[2]


Two white racists, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis 'Pete' Willard, come across a 10-year-old black girl named Tonya Hailey in rural Mississippi. They violently rape and beat Tonya and dump her in a nearby river after a failed attempt to hang her. She survives, and the men are arrested.

Tonya's father, Carl Lee Hailey, seeks out Jake Brigance, an easygoing white lawyer. Carl Lee is worried that the men may be acquitted due to deep-seated racism in the Mississippi Delta. They discuss a similar case further south in which four white teenagers were acquitted of the rape of a black girl. Brigance admits the possibility that the rapists will walk free in this case as well. Carl Lee acquires an M16 rifle, goes to the county courthouse and opens fire. This results in the deaths of both rapists and also in the unintended injury of Deputy Looney. Carl Lee is soon arrested without resistance. Brigance agrees to provide defense for Carl Lee for a smaller amount of money than such a trial would usually require, and enters a plea of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

The rape and subsequent revenge killing gain national media attention. The Ku Klux Klan begins to organize in the area. Freddie Lee Cobb, the brother of Billy Ray, calls Brigance and his family with death threats and organizes the formation of a Klan chapter in the county. The district attorney, Rufus Buckley, decides to seek the death penalty, and presiding Judge Omar Noose denies Brigance a change of venue. Brigance seeks help for his defense team from sleazy divorce lawyer and close friend Harry Rex Vonner and from former mentor and long-time liberal activist Lucien Wilbanks, a once-great civil rights lawyer who was disbarred for violence on a picket line.

Brigance is approached by Ellen Roark, a law student from Massachusetts and member of the ACLU. Brigance is initially reluctant to accept Ellen's cooperation, but he later agrees to let her help with the case. The trial begins amid much attention from the media and public. The Klan, burns a cross on Brigance's lawn. This incident causes an argument between Brigance and his wife to the effect that if Brigance had heeded Carl Lee's warning, this would not have happened. The police evacuate Brigance's family from their house. One of the Klan members shows remorse for the groups' actions, and warns Brigance and the police of an upcoming attack. Brigance and the Sheriff capture one of the Klan members, and they find a case with a bomb inside it. Brigance sets off the alarm accidentally but is able to throw the bomb away from the house before it explodes. This motivates Brigance to send his wife and young daughter away while the trial continues.

As the trial begins, the KKK march down Canton's streets and meet a large group of mostly black protesters at the courthouse. A brawl ensues between the KKK and the black protesters outside the courthouse as the police lose control of the crowd. A black teenager kills the Kleagle with a Molotov cocktail, burning him to death. Brigance's attraction to Roark grows, and they nearly begin an affair before Brigance regains his wits. He goes home, finding that arsonists have burned down his house, nearly killing his dog Max in the process. The next morning, as the Mississippi National Guard is called in to take care of the rioting, Brigance sits on the still-smoking steps of his house, calling for his dog. Harry Rex arrives at the remains of the Brigance home and tells Brigance that it is time to quit the case. Brigance argues that to quit now would make his sacrifices meaningless. The jury secretly discusses the case in a restaurant, going against the judge's instructions. All but one are leaning toward a guilty verdict and Carl Lee's fate looks sealed.

Freddie Lee Cobb shoots at Brigance as he exits the courthouse, but misses. The bullet hits a National Guardsman policing the demonstrations, wounding him. Roark is kidnapped by Klansmen, beaten, tied to a stake in the wilderness in her underwear and left to die. She is saved by an informant called "Mickey Mouse", who is one of the Klansmen: Tim Nunley. Out of options, Brigance goes to see Carl Lee in his jail cell and advises accepting a lesser guilty plea. Carl Lee refuses and rejects Brigance's notions of race and justice, noting that although Brigance considers himself a "friend" to Carl Lee, Brigance has never visited his home and that "Our kids will never play together." Carl Lee tells Brigance that he chose Brigance to be his attorney because Brigance is in fact his "enemy", as Brigance is white and thus was raised amid the same racial prejudices harbored by the jury members. He tells Brigance to sway the jury by presenting to them whatever argument it would take to get Brigance himself to vote for acquittal, were Brigance a member of that jury.

At the closing arguments of the case, Brigance 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 the story of Tonya's rape. He then asks the jury, in his final comment, to "now imagine she's white." This final burst of imagery challenges the very nature of the trial itself, raising the very real specter—within the racist culture of the community in which the crime took place—that the actions of Hailey would not have been called to question before the court of law had the victim been white. Had it been so, it is implied that the father's motive in murdering the rapists would have been seen by the public as justified, and there would not have been any prosecution.

The argument Brigance then makes is that if the jury can—at any time—be compelled to spare the life of a white man for a vengeful murder, then they must be able to do the same for a black man. After deliberation, an African-American child runs out of the courthouse and screams, "He's innocent!" Jubilation ensues amongst the supporters outside. The KKK, enraged, become violent again. Sheriff Ozzie Walls arrests Freddie Lee, as well as his own racist deputy. The movie ends when Brigance brings his wife and daughter to a family cookout at Carl Lee's house. Carl Lee is surprised and standoffish. Brigance explains, "Just thought our kids could play together," to which Carl Lee smiles.



Box office performance[edit]

According to Boxofficemojo.com, the movie performed well, earning over $108 million domestically.

Critical reception[edit]

The film received mostly positive reviews from critics, earning a 67% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 51 reviews,[3] a critical consensus reading: "Overlong and superficial, A Time to Kill nonetheless succeeds on the strength of its skillful craftsmanship and top-notch performances". It has a score of 54 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 21 reviews.[4]

James Berardinelli gave the film three stars out of four, calling it "involving, energetic, and occasionally thought-provoking".[5] Roger Ebert also gave the film three stars out of four, saying: "I was absorbed by A Time to Kill, and found the performances strong and convincing," and added that "this is the best of the film versions of Grisham novels, I think, and it has been directed with skill by Joel Schumacher."[6]

The film was not without its detractors, however. Anthony Puccinelli gave the film one star, calling it "worthless" and remarking: "A Time to Kill argues for vigilantism but disguises its message by making the vigilante black, allowing viewers to think their blood lust and thirst for revenge is actually empathy for the oppressed."[7] Peter Travers felt that "they [Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman] cram[med] in too much," adding, "This distracts from the heart of the picture, which is in the bond between Carl Lee (the brilliant [Samuel L.] Jackson is quietly devastating) and Jake, a husband and father who knows he, too, would have shot anyone who raped his little girls."[8]

Grisham enjoyed the film, remarking: "When all was said and done I was happy with it, happy we were able to find a kid like Matthew McConaughey. It wasn't a great movie, but it was a good one."[9]

Reaction in France[edit]

In France, the film has been the subject of much controversy. Critics have accused the movie of making an apology for the death penalty and right of self-defense. A question mark was added at the end of the title ("Le Droit de tuer ?"/"The Right to Kill ?"[10][11]) so as not to shock the audience. Amnesty International France uses the word "disturbing" when referring to the film in one of its documents.[12][not in citation given] Les Inrockuptibles described the film as "nauseating", "stinking", almost "fascist", with a script "ultra-populist" that makes you want to "vomit".[13] Libération criticized the script, calling it "extremely dirty": the movie, says the newspaper, "militates in favour of the black cause only to legitimize, after many plot buckles (resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan, the deceits of court, threats [of m]any kinds) the mentally ill gesture of the avenging father". According to Libération, the movie "justifies the indefensible" with a "dripping sentimentalism".[14]


  • Golden Globe - Best Supporting Actor - Samuel L. Jackson - Nominated
  • NAACP Image Award - Best Supporting Actor in a film - Samuel L. Jackson - Nominated
  • Blockbuster Entertainment Award - Favorite Actress - Suspense - Sandra Bullock - Won
  • MTV Movie Awards - Best Female Performance - Sandra Bullock - Nominated
  • MTV Movie Awards - Best Breakthrough Performance - Matthew McConaughey - Won
  • Razzie Award - Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 Million - Akiva Goldsman - Nominated
  • Stinkers Bad Movie Awards - Worst Supporting Actress - Brenda Fricker - Nominated


A Time to Kill
Soundtrack album by Elliot Goldenthal
Released August 20, 1996
Genre Classical, avant-garde, modernist
Length 35:02
Label Atlantic
Producer Matthias Gohl
Elliot Goldenthal chronology
Michael Collins
A Time to Kill
The Butcher Boy

Elliot Goldenthal scored the film. AllMusic gave the soundtrack two and a half stars out of five, commenting that it "doesn't work particularly well when it's separated from the film itself."[15]

  1. "Defile and Lament" – 2:33
  2. "Consolation" – 2:23
  3. "Justice Wheel" – 0:46
  4. "Pavane for Solace" – 2:29
  5. "Abduction" – 2:58
  6. "An Asurrendering" – 1:35
  7. "Pavane for Loss" – 1:07
  8. "Take My Hand Precious Lord & Retribution" by The Jones Sisters – 6:50
  9. "Torch and Hood" – 2:02
  10. "Pressing Judgement" – 1:29
  11. "White Sheet" – 2:38
  12. "Pavane for Solace" (piano solo) – 2:06
  13. "Verdict Fanfare" (For Aaron) – 4:03
  14. "Take My Hand Precious Lord" – 4:03
  • Music composed by Elliot Goldenthal (except 8 and 14)
  • Music produced by Matthias Gohl
  • Orchestrated by Robert Elhai and Elliot Goldenthal
  • Conducted by Jonathan Sheffer
  • Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki
  • Electronic music produced by Richard Martinez
  • Additional orchestrations by Deniz Hughes

See also[edit]


External links[edit]