A Time to Kill

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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A Time to Kill is a 1996 film adaptation of John Grisham's 1989 legal thriller novel of the same name. Directed by Joel Schumacher, the film features an ensemble cast that includes Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, and Kevin Spacey.

Two white supremacists (Nicky Katt and Doug Hutchison) come across a ten-year-old black girl named Tonya (Rae'Ven Larrymore Kelly) 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 (Samuel L. Jackson), seeks out Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), an easygoing white lawyer. Carl Lee is worried that the men may be acquitted due to racism in the Mississippi Delta area. Hailey acquires an M16 rifle, goes to the county courthouse, and opens fire; he kills both rapists and unintentionally injures a police deputy (Chris Cooper) with a ricochet.

Carl Lee is arrested without resistance, and the plot then follows the trial of Carl Lee (who is defended by Brigance) and the racial undertones denoting the trial, as well as a number of sub-plots.

Tropes used in A Time to Kill include:
  • Adaptation Distillation / Pragmatic Adaptation: The book, having the luxury of time, paid a lot of attention to the jury. The DA is also more openly racist. Most significantly, the "reverse the races" thought experiment was put forth by a juror, not Brigance. The necessarily narrowed focus most likely forced it into Brigance's summation (which in the book was actually fairly "safe" and dry; it was even only paraphrased), creating a very powerful scene. Additionally, the Klan mole who alerted the police to the Klan activities and saves Ellen's life is eventually found out and murdered by them. And interestingly enough, the sexual tension between Jake and Ellen isn't as palpable as in the film, and there are moments where both Jake and Carl Lee are frankly, jackasses.
  • Adult Fear: Imagine your little girl was beaten and raped, and her rapists stood a very likely chance of getting off.
  • All-Star Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, both Sutherlands (Donald and Kiefer), Oliver Platt, Ashley Judd... that's just a few of them.
  • Amoral Attorney: Rufus Buckley.
  • Angry Black Man: Carl Lee Hailey, in the courthouse, with an assault rifle.
  • Anti Hero: Carl in theory murdered those two men for a very good reason, but at some point it's obvious that seems he accomplished nothing but empty vengeance. The fact he acted on fear of acquittal rather than after an unfair trial makes him look even worse.
  • Asshole Victim: The child rapists.
  • Black and Grey Morality: What the men did to his daughter was undoubtedly reprehensible, but did that give Carl Lee the right to take their lives? If it had been a black rapist getting shot, would there be as much discussion? What if it had been your child?
    • Well, much depends on the personal standpoint. It does range very much to Black and White Morality though, as the goodies (Brigance & consorts, Hailey) are good good, and the baddies (Buckley, the KKK & comrades) are bad bad. None of the aforementioned leads seem to have any controversial faults or redeemable qualities respectively. Sure, the film makers did attempt to warp the lines of morality a little bit by adding minor characters who are Villain Protagonists or Hero Antagonists (the methodist lawyers who may or may not try to pass Hailey as a martyr of black suffrage by attempting to lose the trial, or the psychological consultant of Brigance & consorts who turns out to be a sex offender, or the KKK-member who tips off the police regularily and saves Brigance's wife and later, Ellen), but those did have a less-than-minor effect on the actual storyline and outcome. The result still is in the "good triumphs over evil" sense.
    • The injured deputy introduces some additional Black and Grey Morality for those who might be overly sympathetic to Carl Lee. While the deputy is not embittered by his injury (as he had every right to be), the fact remains that he is crippled for life due to Carl Lee's actions. The end of the movie cookout loses a lot of its charm when you imagine that deputy at that very moment, struggling to get out of bed.
    • To answer the original poster: "Yes, they deserve to die, and I hope they burn in Hell!"
  • Fake American: Dublin-native Brenda Fricker; Canadians Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, and Oliver Platt; and New York-born, England-raised Patrick McGoohan.
  • Hello, Attorney!: Jake Brigance and Ellen Roark, although it's technically Hello Law Student in her case.
  • Infant Immortality: Subverted as Tonya Hailey isn't killed, but is brutally beaten and raped. Played straight with Jake's dog Max. When Jake's house is torched by the Klan, he frantically tries to get inside to rescue him, but is held back. The house collapses in flames as he screams the dog's name. The next morning, as he sifts through the rubble, he continues to call out to Max. It seems futile--until Max finally emerges from the woods, frightened and covered with soot, but unharmed and just as overjoyed to see Jake as Jake is to see him.
  • Insanity Defense
  • Ironic Echo: When Brigance asks Carl Lee to seek a lesser guilty plea, he refuses, telling Brigance that his views on justice and race are wrong, adding "Our kids will never play together." At the end after Carl Lee is aquited, Brigance brings his wife and daughter to a family cookout at Carl Lee's house saying, "Just thought our kids could play together."
  • Kick the Dog: The attack on Tonya Hailey and just about every stunt the Klan pulls.
  • Manly Tears: Matthew McConaughey's defense summation; done in one take. The tears were genuine and unscripted.
  • Meaningful Name: Judge Omar Noose.
    • Ironic, as he's not a bigot and appears to be thoroughly impartial in his handling of the case.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Played with when Carl Lee talks with his wife about killing Tanya's assailants and tells her it's the only thing that gives him solace while he languishes in jail away from his family--"I think about those boys. . .God help me, Gwen, that's the only thing that gives me comfort." He seems far more disturbed by his lack of remorse than by what he did.
  • No Indoor Voice: "Yes they deserved to die and I hope they burn in Hell!"
  • One-Scene Wonder: Chris Cooper as the deputy who lost his leg in the attack, but holds no ill will and calls Carl Lee a hero.
  • Penultimate Outburst: Two of them.
  • Scary Black Man: Played by Samuel L. Jackson even.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Jake and Ellen, in spades. It's even acknowledged at one point (and very maturely and realistically handled), when they're commiserating in his office after an attempt on Jake's life has left a National Guard officer seriously wounded:

Ellen: Are you okay? Do you want me to stay?
Jake: Yes, I want you to stay. (pauses) So you'd better go.

  • We Do the Impossible: Brigance attempts to defend the afro-american worker Carl Lee Hailey--who killed two white men and stands by it--by pulling an Insanity Defence in a Deep South judicial system (with death row awaiting Hailey) against a white and ruthless prosecutor with a socially and politically influential background, a highly suggestible (as well as heavily opportunistic) magistrate, an all-white well-to-do jury who just wants to go home, a corrupted black suffrage activist group who hold out for a martyr (Hailey), KKK-members and neo-Nazis spreading terror and intimidating Brigance's co-workers into quitting one by one, and (to add insult to injury) weak and powerless local authorities that fail to hinder any of this. Oh, and there's also the rioting that breaks out halfway through the trial. Well yeah, it really couldn't get any worse. But hey, guess who wins in the end?
  • What Could Have Been: Woody Harrelson was originally to take the role of Jake, but John Grisham would not allow it as a friend of his was murdered by a Natural Born Killers copycat.