A Time to Kill

A Time to Kill Information

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, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Oliver Platt, Ashley Judd, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Spacey and Patrick McGoohan.

Set in Canton, Mississippi, the film revolves around the rape of a young girl and the arrest of the rapists and their subsequent murder by the girl's father, Carl Lee Hailey. The remainder of the film then focuses on the trial of Carl Lee Hailey for murder. Upon its theatrical release, A Time to Kill was a commercial success, taking nearly $110 million at the U.S. box office.

Plot summary

Two white racists, Billy Ray Cobb (Nicky Katt) and Pete Willard (Doug Hutchison), come across a 10-year-old black girl named Tonya Hailey (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 deep-seated racism in the Mississippi Delta area. 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 (Chris Cooper), who has to have his leg amputated. Carl Lee is soon arrested without resistance. Brigance agrees to provide defense for Carl Lee for a much smaller amount of money than such a trial would usually require. He intends to enter 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 (Kiefer Sutherland), 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 (Kevin Spacey), decides to seek the death penalty, and presiding Judge Omar Noose (Patrick McGoohan) denies Brigance a change of venue. Brigance seeks help for his defense team from sleazy divorce lawyer and close friend Harry Rex Vonner (Oliver Platt). He seeks guidance from long-time liberal activist Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland), a once-great civil rights lawyer who was disbarred for violence on a picket line.

Brigance is approached by Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), a fiery liberal law student from Massachusetts who belongs to 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, which has a member inside the sheriff's department, burns a cross on Brigance's lawn. This incident causes an argument between Brigance and his wife to the effect that if Jake had heeded Carl Lee's warning, this would not have happened. The police evacuate Jake's family from their house. Brigance and the police capture one of the Klan members, and they find a case with a bomb inside it. Brigance throws the bomb into the air, where it explodes. This motivates Jake 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. Chaos ensues outside the courthouse as the police lose control of the crowd. A black teenager kills the KKK Grand Dragon (Kurtwood Smith) 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. 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. Harry Rex arrives at the remains of the Brigance home and tells Jake 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, paralyzing 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 (John Diehl). 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 was thus raised amid the same racial prejudices harbored by the jury members. Carl Lee 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.

The courthouse is packed to see the attorneys' closing arguments. 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 (Charles S. Dutton) 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. Jake explains, "just thought our kids could play together," and Carl Lee smiles at that.


  • Sandra Bullock as Ellen Roark, a law student working free for the defense
  • Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee Hailey, defendant
  • Matthew McConaughey as Jake Brigance, defense attorney for Carl Lee Hailey
  • Kevin Spacey as Rufus Buckley, prosecuting attorney
  • Brenda Fricker as Ethel Twitty, secretary to Brigance
  • Oliver Platt as Harry Rex Vonner, attorney assisting defense
  • Charles S. Dutton as Ozzie Walls, Canton Sheriff
  • Ashley Judd as Carla Brigance, Jake's wife
  • Patrick McGoohan as Judge Omar Noose, presiding judge
  • Kiefer Sutherland as Freddie Lee Cobb, Billy Ray's racist brother
  • Donald Sutherland as Lucien Wilbanks, a disbarred lawyer and Jake's mentor
  • John Diehl as Tim Nunley, a Klansman, later informant (Mickey Mouse)
  • Doug Hutchison as James Louis "Pete" Willard, a rapist
  • Nicky Katt as Billy Ray Cobb, a rapist
  • Chris Cooper as Dwayne Looney, the deputy accidentally shot by Hailey
  • Anthony Heald as Dr. Wilbert Rodeheaver, state psychiatrist
  • Rae'Ven Larrymore Kelly as Tonya Hailey, Carl Lee's daughter, rape victim

Production notes

John Grisham has worked with director Joel Schumacher before on the film adaptation of The Client with Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. While only his book was the basis for his involvement with that film, Grisham took an active role in this film's production as a producer. The reason, as Grisham explained it, was that A Time to Kill was his first book and the favorite one out of all of his works, and he wanted to see its adaptation done to his standards.

Before the part of Jake Brigance went to Matthew McConaughey, other actors, such as Val Kilmer, John Cusack, Robert Downey, Jr., Aidan Quinn and Brad Pitt, were considered. Woody Harrelson had lobbied for the part and Kevin Costner was close to being cast, but Grisham axed Costner because the actor wanted complete control of the project. McConaughey was originally going to play Freddie Lee Cobb but convinced Joel Schumacher to let him audition for the part of Jake Brigance. Schumacher videotaped the audition and decided that McConaughey was right for the part. He then approached Grisham and showed him the audition, which sold Grisham on casting him.

Bruce Dern was the original choice for the role of Judge Omar Noose. However, Patrick McGoohan was cast when Dern proved unavailable.

This film was the second to feature both Donald Sutherland and his son Kiefer. The first was Max Dugan Returns, which was Kiefer's film debut.


Box office performance

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

Critical reaction

The film received mostly positive reviews from critics, earning a 68% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 50 reviews, and a score of 54 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 21 reviews. James Berardinelli gave the film three stars out of four, calling it "involving, energetic, and occasionally thought-provoking". 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."

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." 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."

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."

In Europe, 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. In France, a question mark was added at the end of the title ("Le Droit de tuer ?"/"The Right to Kill ?") so as not to shock the audience. Amnesty International France uses the word "disturbing" when referring to the film in one of its documents. Les Inrockuptibles described the film as "nauseating", "stinking", almost "fascist", with a script "ultra-populist" that makes you want to "vomit". 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".


  • Samuel L. Jackson received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
  • Samuel L. Jackson also received an NAACP Image Award for Best Supporting Actor in a film.
  • 1997 Blockbuster Entertainment Award - Favorite Actress - Suspense - Sandra Bullock - Won
  • 1997 MTV Movie Awards - Best Female Performance - Sandra Bullock - Nominated
  • 1997 MTV Movie Awards - Best Breakthrough Performance - Matthew McConaughey - Won

See also

  • A Time to Kill (soundtrack)
  • Jury nullification
  • Trial movies

This webpage uses material from the Wikipedia article "A_Time_to_Kill_%28film%29" and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Reality TV World is not responsible for any errors or omissions the Wikipedia article may contain.



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