Looking Back at Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill

Joel Schumacher followed up Batman Forever with a march back into the world of John Grisham. We look back at A Time To Kill...

“Until we can see each other as equals, justice is never going to be even-handed. It will remain nothing more than a reflection of our own prejudices.” – Jake

The Recap

After having huge box office, if not critical success with Batman Forever, Joel Schumacher’s next film would see him going back to his more dramatic roots, adapting another of John Grisham’s bestsellers for the big screen.

Set in rural Mississippi, two white supremacists come across Tonya Hailey (RaeVen Larrymore Kelly), a 10-year-old black girl making her way home. The two brutally attack and rape her before trying to hang her from a tree. After the hanging fails, the two dump her body in a nearby river hoping that the elements will take their toll and kill her.

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She survives her ordeal, the two men are arrested, and word spreads of the evil act they committed. Uncertain that the men will face the justice they deserve, Tonya’s father Carl Lee (Samuel L. Jackson) goes to lawyer Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) to see if there is a possibility the men will be acquitted due to the deep-set racism within their area of Mississippi.

Jake confirms there is a possibility of this happening, which leads Carl Lee to go to the court house with a gun, killing both men and unintentionally shooting Deputy Looney (Chris Cooper). He is arrested without resistance and charged with murder and attempted murder of a police official.

Jake decides to take Carl Lee on as his client for a marginally lower fee than normal and enters a not guilty plea due to reason of insanity. He puts a team together including divorce lawyer and friend Harry Rex Vonner (Oliver Platt), liberal activist Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland) and law student Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock).

While they are making plans, the brother of one of the rapists, Freddie Lee Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland) forms a chapter from the Ku Klux Klan and places death threats against Jake and his family. After a change of venue is denied, District Attorney Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey) calls for the death penalty for Carl Lee and the trial begins.

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The trial garners much media attention and the focus on race becomes a prominent issue. The Klan’s support begins to grown within the town, with even a member of the police force joining up. With inside information from this informant, the Klan burn a large cross on Jake’s lawn, forcing him to move his family out of town while the trial continues. The Klan also organises a march which ends in violence and the death of the Klan’s Grand Dragon, causing more anger and hatred.

With his family away, Jake’s attraction to Ellen grows, but the two decide not to act on their feelings. This is not the problem Jake faces, though, as, when he returns home one evening, his house had been burned down and with the jury having internally already decided Carl Lee is guilty, it seems the odds are stacked against them.

Harry confides to Jake it is time he stepped away from the trial, but Jake refuses as, if he quits now, everything he has sacrificed would have been for nothing.

Freddie Lee’s vendetta continues as he arranges for Ellen to be taken and beaten and left on a stake in the woods to die. He also attempts to assassinate Jake, but ends up shooting a National Guardsman, paralyzing him in the process.

With everything stacking up against him, Jake visits Carl Lee and advises him to plead guilty on lesser charges. Carl Lee refuses, as he feels Jake’s views on justice and race are wrong, and with Carl’s words ringing in his ears, he makes his closing argument, describing exactly what happened to Tonya and then asking the jury to imagine if she was a white girl instead.

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After hours of deliberation, the jury find Carl Lee not guilty and outside the courthouse the Klan become violent again, but are soon shut down with the police arresting Freddie Lee and the police mole who had been working for them.

Once the smoke clears and Jake is reunited with his family, he visits Carl Lee’s to attend a cookout to celebrate his freedom. Although Carl Lee is standoffish at first, the two become closer as their daughters become friends, proving that race cannot stand in the way of friendship.

Thoughts & Reaction

Having worked with Schumacher on The Client and been pleased with the results of the movie, Grisham wanted him back on board for A Time to Kill as it was his first and favourite book. Wanting to be more involved than in previous adaptations, Grisham took the role of producer very seriously, being involved with every iota of the production, wanting the film to be done in the way he saw it in his head when he was writing the novel.

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Schumacher takes a big step back as a director with this project. His usual visual flair is reduced greatly and the cinematic style of this film is more of raw emotion than anything else. It doesn’t hold the down and dirty, gritty quality The Client or Falling Down had, but feels more truthful and honest. The majority of this, of course, is associated with the script and acting, but it does take a good eye to portray that feeling via film and I think for this Schumacher hit the nail right on the head.

Schumacher favourite, writer Akiva Goldsman, managed to piece together a good script from the book. It managed to capture the emotion that Grisham had created and the tension that slowly builds up throughout the novel to a satisfying conclusion that didn’t feel rushed or too happy ending as, really, nobody won in the end. Yes, Carl Lee got his freedom, but the reason he committed the act in the first place can never be forgotten.

As with his involvement in the rest of the film, Grisham was highly interested in who was cast in the movie. All the roles were filled quickly, but the lead of Jake was one of the last to be filled with Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr all in contention.

Woody Harrelson threw his hat into the ring, but to no avail, as Grisham didn’t feel he was right for the part.

The first real contender was Kevin Costner but, as he wanted full creative control of the film, he was soon also pushed out.

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Due to play the role of Freddie Lee Cobb, McConaughey went to Schumacher and asked to be considered for the part. One audition tape later Grisham was hooked and the role went to him. When re-watching this film you really do get the sense of what a great actor he can be and I wish he would go for more of these serious roles than the back to back romcoms he seems so set on playing in now. He is totally wasted in them, and, if the right project came along, he could become a major player in Hollywood. You wonder if that day might have passed, though.

Sandra Bullock, Oliver Platt and Kiefer Sutherland fill the supporting roles nicely and balance the film out in all the areas it requires, but it really is Samuel L. Jackson who is the beating heart of the story and provides the best performance. His anger and hurt and rage against the system which should be protecting him and his daughter is amazing and his performance is so subtle and moving you feel like you are not watching an actor anymore but an actual person who is in an awful and tragic situation. Surely there can be no higher praise for an actor than that.

Upon its release, A Time to Kill went down well with audiences, with only the Tom Cruise vehicle The Firm beating its box office gross among Grisham movies. Critics were mixed in their reviews and controversy was stirred to the film’s stance on the death penalty and self defence, which eventually lead to the film being re-named in some countries to The Right To Kill?

With yet another success under his belt, Schumacher’s next project would see him re-visiting another of his past successes. This time, however, it would not go down so well and nearly end his career as a serious director and become the final nail in the coffin for what, at that point, had been a hugely successful series.

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Next time, I will be looking at the horror that would come to be known as Batman & Robin.

A Time to Kill Key Info:

Released: 24th July 1996 (US) / 13th September 1996 (UK)Distributed By: Warner Bros.Budget: $40,000,000Box Office Gross: $180,766,007Best DVD Edition: A Time to Kill DVD