Remember This Good Courtroom Drama?

Clapboard & cinema reel

My library’s discard shelf has been changed forever. On a particularly lucky day (for me), I cleaned out the shelf of all the John Grisham novels. These weren’t ragged, falling-apart copies; these were hard copies with clean dust jackets in good condition, probably a patron’s donation that the library didn’t need. My life has been elevated because of it.

It put me in mind of the many movies that have been made of Grisham’s books, in particular, the one that made Matthew McConaughey a star. If you haven’t seen this 1996 film, it’s still just as engrossing as it ever was. A Time to Kill is based on Grisham’s first novel, which was rejected by a bevy of publishers and only dusted off once more after he gained a name with later novels.

A Time to Kill, as other Grisham stories, is set in the Deep South, this time targeting the issue of race relations and asking the pointed question, ‘Can an African-American man who has murdered two white men get a fair trial, or even a jury of his peers?’  Of course, it’s not all so simple.  The two dead white males were violent scum to start with and show no remorse for their actions.  Although they committed the initial crime, the rape and attempted murder of the African-American man’s little girl, the issue for debate is, can justice prevail in a situation like this?  Even though vigilantism is against the law, who among us would not entertain the thought of meting out our own punishment if our loved ones were victimized?

That is the position taken by defense attorney Jake Brigance, played by McConaughey. He is incessantly driven by the specter of such a heinous crime befalling his own wife or little daughter, not by cash (what a concept!) which his client, Carl Lee Haley, doesn’t have.  His perseverance is admirable in the face of death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, and of the very real possibility that his budding law career could go up in flames faster than the cross burned in his front yard.

Despite a lot of advance publicity to live up to, McConaughey carries the lead well with his down-home Southern charisma and natural ability.  And he is surrounded by great supporting players here—Kevin Spacey is remarkable as the self-assured prosecutor aiming for career-boosting headlines in a case he knows he can’t lose.  The large cast includes Sandra Bullock as an ambitious law student who likes to flirt; Oliver Platt, a sex-starved divorce lawyer who provides plenty of comic moments so essential to this film; Donald Sutherland, a brilliant but alcoholic disbarred attorney who took a wrong turn somewhere; and Ashley Judd as Jake’s loving wife.  McConaughey and Judd’s scenes sizzle, quite possibly because the makeup department overdid the sweat.  Or maybe the Brigances need to invest in an air conditioner.

At two and a half hours, A Time to Kill is gripping courtroom drama with fine acting, thought-provoking realism sprinkled with many fun-to-watch characters.