Film: A Time to Kill

It ain't easy saving the world, even one case at a time.

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, Kevin Spacey, and Kurtwood Smith.

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 associated with this work:

  • 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 the sexual tension between Jake and Ellen isn't as palpable as in the film, and rather than their borderline angelic personas in the movie, there are plenty of 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.
  • Amoral Attorney: Rufus Buckley. An amusing version in Jerk with a Heart of Gold Harry Rex.
  • Angry Black Man: Carl Lee Hailey, in the courthouse, with an assault rifle.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • The child rapists who are shot to death by Carl Lee Haney to prevent them from getting away unpunished.
    • The KKK Grand Dragon, who is burned to death after inciting a riot.
  • 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.
    • With that said, it does range very much to Black and White Morality though, as the protagonists(Brigance & consorts, Hailey) are goodly good, and the antagonists (Buckley, the KKK & neonazis) are badly 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 ambiguous minor characters like (the high-profile lawyers who may or may not try to pass Hailey as a martyr of black civil rights by attempting to lose the trial, or the psychiatric expert witness 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 ended up having a comparably minor impact on the actual storyline and outcome. In the end,"good" still triumphs over "evil".
  • December-December Romance: Jake's mentor and his secretary. It's implied she was his mistress back in their younger days and the scene after husband's funeral makes it pretty obvious the feelings are still there.
  • Fan Disservice: The sight of the shapely Sandra Bullock being stripped to her underwear is completely undercut by the fact that it's in the course of a vicious Klan attack. She's not raped, but is left tied to a post in the middle of the woods so that she'll die of exposure.
  • Graceful Loser: Rufus Buckley. After spending a huge amount of time and effort to get a conviction, and failing to do so, he...simply congratulates Brigance and shakes his hand without a hint of sarcasm or derision.
  • Hello, Attorney!: Jake Brigance and Ellen Roark, although it's technically Hello Law Student in her case.
  • Hollywood Law: Carl commits cold-blooded premeditated murder. He pleads temporary insanity (which is not a real defense-it's just insanity, temporary or not). The defense's closing argument does not mention insanity, but plays on the jury's emotions to convince them of justifiable homicide, after failing to prove insanity. And that's just the biggest example. Of course, they are not actually trying to prove insanity, and it's privately acknowledged several times that he knew exactly what he was doing. What they're trying to do is go for jury nullification, which no respectable judge would allow. Of course, the jury can still ignore his instructions, and once they acquit, no one can overrule them. It's very unlikely a Real Life judge would let him go through with his speech (however, in the book it's a juror who does the "imagine she's white" talk, while in the jury room, thus getting the rest to acquit).
  • 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."
  • Karmic Death: A group of hoodlums kill the KKK Grand Dragon by setting him on fire with a Molotov cocktail. Given the Klan's penchant for burning things, this is both karmic and ironic.
  • Kick the Dog: The attack on Tonya Hailey and just about every stunt the Klan pulls.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch:
    • The whole plot of the film is kicked off when a vengeful father kills the men who raped his daughter, which would make this trope apply for those who agree with his actions.
    • Another example is the killing of the KKK Grand Dragon. See Karmic Death.
  • The Klan: The Ku Klux Klan plays a pretty big role in the film. They support Carl's conviction, and Freddie Lee Cobb (whose grandfather was a Klansmen) enlists their help to sow mayhem. They protest in front of the courthouse, starting a riot with a black crowd, which interrupts the court's proceedings. The Grand Wizard is killed, but Freddie and the remaining Klan members continue to intimidate and send death threats to Jake to make him step down as Carl's defense attorney. He doesn't.
  • 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 Tonya'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!"
  • Papa Wolf: Carl Lee Hailey, obviously. The deputy played by Chris Cooper also counts, as he says he would have done the same thing.
  • 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. (Beat) So you'd better go.
  • We Do the Impossible: Brigance attempts to defend the African 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), pitted against a ruthless white prosecutor with a socially and politically influential background, a highly suggestible (as well as very opportunistic) magistrate, an all-white well-to-do jury who just wants to go home, a corrupted black activist group that holds 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 who fail to hinder any of this. Oh, and there's also the rioting that breaks out halfway through the trial. And then the National Guard has to be called in. Well yeah, it really couldn't get any worse. But hey, guess who wins in the end?

Alternative Title(s):

A Time To Kill