A Time to Kill
- Current Status
- In Season
- Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Chris Cooper, Samuel L. Jackson, Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Kiefer Sutherland
- Joel Schumacher
- Drama, Mystery and Thriller
In A Time to Kill, a 10-year-old black girl in Mississippi is raped and tortured by two drunk white men. The girl’s aggrieved father tracks the rapists down and shoots them dead. For his defense, he hires a local white lawyer who has to face down the entire history of Southern racism.
This high-concept lawyer-as-hero story is, of course, by lawyer-as-publishing phenomenon John Grisham. And the back story of the author’s attachment to his first novel, written in 1984 — how it was rejected by 12 publishers before it found a home; how no one gave the poor li’l thing any mind until he had written The Firm; how Grisham held his firstborn favorite close, negotiating for what he felt would be exactly the right director, cast, and sensibility — has become legend. But let’s get real: Such an overbusy In the Heat of the Night-type thriller was hardly in need of coddling. And even supposing it was, this adaptation by director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who previously worked together on The Client) is so much more cautious, prettied up, and time warped than the original that it can only frustrate purists/readers — and nonplus audiences newly coming to the story.
Who among readers knew, for instance, that Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), the combative, debt-ridden counsel for the defense, in fact exhibits the refined, sensual charm and stylish wire-rim glasses of a GQ model? That the jailed working-stiff father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), is actually articulate enough to make a cogent New Republican speech about the state of race relations? That Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), the mouthy, ambitious law student who joins the case, is so warm and Bullocky — and such a big part of the plot? (Who, for that matter, knew that air-conditioning has yet to be imported to Mississippi? Everyone sweats prodigiously in Schumacher’s South, like they’re all cats on a hot tin roof.)
The moviegoer who, on the other hand, comes to Grisham’s story fresh has got to wonder just what era of the South y’all have wandered into — 1956? 1996? In A Time to Kill — a slick, synthetic, self-important drama that thinks it is saying more than it is simply because of its subject matter — Schumacher wants it both ways. In such a setting, totemic camera shots do the work of real tension or content: Jackson’s moist, burning eyes seen in the dark as he hunts his prey; McConaughey’s handsome jaw lit just right as he realizes the Ku Klux Klan is after him; Bullock’s raggedy bangs doing that thing they do as she tries to figure out if her character is there out of a passion for justice or as a siren to tempt Jake. And a parade of prestige-project supporting actors — Kevin Spacey, Charles S. Dutton, Brenda Fricker, Patrick McGoohan, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland — are left, in the absence of deeper direction, to substitute stock portrayals for real characters. Spacey is the sharky prosecutor; Kiefer S. acts the KKK bigot; Donald S. vamps it up as Lucien, the bearded, alky Obi-Wan Kenobi to McConaughey’s legal-beagle Luke Skywalker, etc.
From the car Jake drives, we know that A Time to Kill is set in the present, but a moviegoer can be forgiven for getting confused: By the sights and sounds of Schumacher’s romanticized production, it is forever the 1960s in the South. Yet by the script, this too-neat interpretation of a too-messy book is strictly a product of the have-it-all ’90s. ”Your job is to find justice no matter how hard she hides herself from you,” Lucien tells Jake. ”America is a war and you are on the other side,” Carl Lee tells Jake. Look how gorgeous McConaughey is, Schumacher tells his audience. Everyone is taken care of; no one’s career gets hurt. It’s the best-selling American way. C
A Time to Kill Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Time to Kill by John Grisham.
A Time to Kill is ultimately a story about justice. It is a narrative about the different ways people view justice based on race, personal experience and love, and how far people are willing to go in the name of justice. The story centers on the horrific rape of a ten-year-old black girl and a father’s vengeance. Grisham adds to this heartbreaking narrative the issues of race relations and “blind” justice, thus allowing the reader to question morality, hope and justice in the same way that Grisham’s characters must question these issues throughout the novel.
The novel takes place in northern Mississippi, in May of 1980. Two white men kidnap a ten-year-old black girl, Tonya Hailey, and repeatedly assault her both physically and sexually. When her attackers are done, they throw her in a shallow ravine, expecting her not to survive. She does survive, however, and is taken to the hospital where she has to undergo surgery. Meanwhile, the two white men who attacked her are taken into custody.
The reader is also introduced to Jake Brigance, a young lawyer with a family who is attempting to make a name for himself. He works for a disbarred lawyer named Lucien Wilbanks, and has been given Lucien’s entire practice. Jake is now able to try and make a name for himself representing people of lower class. When Jake becomes involved with Tanya Hailey’s case, her father, Carl Lee Hailey, informs Jake that he is going to murder the two men who abused her.
Though seemingly the words of an angered father, Carl Lee is actually making good on his threat to murder his daughter’s attackers. His brother Lester arrives to town from Chicago, and the two men set about plotting the murder. Lester was actually represented by Jake years earlier when he was acquitted for murder, and so knows the courthouse, thus allowing Carl Lee to sneak inside and plan his revenge after the courthouse closes.
Carl Lee also receives help from a man named “Cat” Bruster. Bruster is a Vietnam vet. Cat gives Carl Lee an M-16 for his revenge plan. The following Monday, Carl Lee Hailey hides in the closet of the courthouse and, when the two white men are escorted out, kills them both while also injuring a deputy. He then discards the weapon and goes home. While the scene is unfolding, Jake is across the street in his office and hears the entire event, causing him to investigate. Carl Lee finally surrenders and is taken into custody for the murder of the two men.
Jake sees Carl Lee’s case as the break he has needed, and hopes it brings him great publicity. Indeed, as news of the events that took place get out, the town of Clanton is inundated with the media. Along with the media and attention, however, death threats begin arriving as well. Because of the nature of the case, a black man killing two white men in 1980s Mississippi, everyone involved in the case is on edge, especially with the death threats. As the jury is selected for the case, Jake and the others also find that the Ku Klux Klan has returned to the county. With the racial tensions brewing and the fact that Carl Lee was seen murdering the two men, Jake hopes that he can get a hung jury by possibly having one black juror involved.
The next two months see a whirlwind of tension and missteps. Jake is fired from the case by Carl Lee when Cat, who supplied the M-16, offers his own big-time lawyer free of charge. Jake, however, does not throw in the towel and, through manipulations of his own, attempts to win back the case that is meant to bring him publicity. As the NAACP is brought in to highlight the racial tension, the Klan burns a cross on Jake’s front yard. When the trial itself nears, the judge issues a gag order on the case. The reader quickly finds that, with all the machinations from all involved, from the black pastors assisting Jake and NAACP to the Klan, Carl Lee seems to be the person with the most honor. Carl Lee is now seen as a hero to the black population, and Jake is able to finally wrest the case away from Cat’s rich lawyer, putting the publicity back into his own hands.
The Klan does not abate, however, and after deciding to target Jake specifically, a bomber is found outside of Jake’s bedroom window. Jake fears for his family’s safety and sends both his wife and daughter away. As the events continue, Jake finds himself increasingly stressed, and without his wife there to help him. Meanwhile, the Klan begins terrorizing people involved in the case, and burns crosses on the lawns of prospective jurors as well. In one tense scene, the Klan arrives at the courthouse and begins protesting the black crowd that has already gathered. In short time, violence erupts.
When the trial itself begins, the National Guard is called in and stationed on the courthouse lawn. The jury is all white, and is hidden away outside of town. Jake goes to great lengths to try and bring about a favorable verdict. A key witness, the black deputy that was accidentally shot by Carl Lee, actually gives a favorable defense of Lee, and argues for temporary insanity. A severe blow is dealt to Jake’s defense, however, when his psychiatrist is discredited, meaning the temporary insanity plea will not work. Things also go poorly for Jake when his own life is threatened again when a sniper attempts to take his life while entering the courthouse. Moreover, his clerk is kidnapped by the Klan and severely injured. Also, his house is burned to the ground.
Though seemingly dejected and without hope, Jake gives his closing arguments and feels elated for the first time in a long while. During the case, his old mentor, Lucien, attempts to buy off one of the jurors. Also, buses filled with blacks are brought in to protest. The protestors are actually successful, scaring off the Klansmen and even intimidating the all-white jury. Finally, the jury reveals that they have found Carl Lee not guilty. The narrative ends with Jake flying to North Carolina to be with his family. Though his house has been burned down, the case has been won, meaning he has the publicity and name to begin again.
A Time to Kill highlights the depths people are willing to go for their beliefs, including views on love, hate and personal views of justice. There is no real character in the novel above reproach, and in this way, Grisham shows just how fallible people are. He shows how dangerous it is to place items on a pedestal, and how malleable items, like the justice system, can in fact be when people do place them on a pedestal.