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Film / A Time to Kill

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

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, Kevin Spacey, Ashley Judd, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Chris Cooper, 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: 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.
  • Amoral Attorney: Rufus Buckley. An amusing version in Jerk with a Heart of Gold Harry Rex.
  • Anonymous Public Phone Call: A member of the KKK warns Jake's family about the fire using this method.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • The child rapists who are shot to death by Carl Lee Hailey to prevent them from getting away unpunished.
    • The KKK Grand Dragon, who is burned to death after inciting a riot.
  • Betty and Veronica: Carla and Ellen. Subverted in that Ellen (Veronica), while obviously attracted to Jake, at no point makes a real pass at him.
  • Black-and-Gray 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.
    • Another instance occurs when a black youth essentially murders the KKK Grand Dragon by throwing a Molotov cocktail on him and apparently completely gets away with it, with there being no mention of him being arrested.
    • 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, and neo-Nazis) 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 regularly and saves Brigance's family 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 Lucien and his secretary Ethel. It is implied she was his mistress back in their younger days and the scene after her husband's funeral makes it pretty obvious the feelings are still there.note 
  • Deep South: The film's setting, with everything that implies.
  • Defiant to the End: Freddie Lee Cobb taunts Ellen about how he plans to leave her to die. Ellen's response?
    "Carl Lee Hailey should have shot you too."
  • Even Evil Has Standards: It's implied that the Klan informant "Mickey Mouse" is a genuine member of the Klan motivated by hatred of black people rather than The Mole, but he draws the line when the Klan start threatening white people like Jake and his family and Ellen.
  • Fan Disservice: The sight of the shapely Sandra Bullock (as Ellen) 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. Freddie also says that after she dies the bugs will slowly eat her.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Jake's secretary Ethel tells him that her husband has had two strokes and won't survive another one. He does have another one brought on by an attack by the Ku Klux Klan and it kills him.
    • When Freddie Lee and his friends mention calling in the Klan, the one who ends up being 'Mickey Mouse' reacts in disgust when he thinks they are referring to Neo-Nazi skinheads, showing already higher standards then his cohorts.
  • Fully-Clothed Nudity: Freddie tells Ellen, "I'm going to leave you here tied up naked", but she's still in her underwear and the remnants of her shirt.
  • 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. However, to him, while it was an opportunity to use the trial as the launch point for a political career, it's also clear he was just doing his job, and there's no doubt that his target, Carl Lee Hailey, did indeed murder two people. He ultimately comes across as an honorable (if ruthless) person.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: Averted with Ellen, played straight with Jake Brigance, who chomps on a cigar throughout.
  • 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 doesn't 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 nullificationnote , 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.note 
    • The DA actively schemes to influence a straight-shooting judge in an active case via friends. Suffice to say this would have serious consequences for both the DA's case and career once the judge caught on.
    • In a heavily Black county, the prosecutor uses peremptory strikes to get an all-white jury in a capital murder case against a Black defendant. This did happen in the old South but by the time of the novel and especially film, it had been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Rule of Drama as having multiple Black members of a jury in this kind of case would remove a great deal of the pressure.
    • With the Ku Klux Klan protests going on outside the courthouse, it is unrealistic to believe that the case would be allowed to continue, and would be grounds for a change of venue, although Jake filed for one prior to the trial. Alternately, the police would forcibly disperse the crowd with tear gas and riot gear and start arresting people. The people who organized the protest would probably be held accountable for heckling too, assuming they knew it would get that insane. This is because not only would be incredibly inconvenient to change the venue (the judge, lawyers, jury, etc all need to be moved at around the same time) but it would delay the court case and possibly even make most of the jury miss trial, which would lead to it being rescheduled which would just lead to more protests and possibly dismissal. Plus, the hecklers would probably just follow them to the new venue.
    • Jake also puts Carl Lee on the stand. While not forbidden, it's generally not done, for precisely what happens—the prosecution rips into his story and gets him to admit that he knew what he was doingnote .
    • As part of Jake's closing statement, he explicitly asks the jury to consider how Carl's race could affect the verdict, suggesting he would receive more leniency if he and his daughter were white. While playing on the jury's emotions are to be expected in such statements, arguments centred around race are frequently treated as improper within courtrooms,note  and this would very likely be an issue if the prosecution were to appeal the verdict.
    • Carl Lee wouldn't necessarily have walked free after his acquittal. He could still have been sent to a psychiatric hospital, or back to jail for outtake processing. Or at the very least, he wouldn't be acquitted, just sentenced to probation like what happened to Gary Plauché in 1984 when he murdered his son's kidnapper/molester with the defense of "if it was your son you would've done the same".
  • Improbable Infant Survival: 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. Unfortunately, this is averted in the novel, where he dies.
  • Insanity Defense: Jake's initial strategy to defend Carl Lee.
  • 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 acquitted, Brigance brings his wife and daughter to a family cookout at Carl Lee's house saying, "Just thought our kids could play together."
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Buckley and the prosecution's psychiatrist claiming that Carl Lee is sane. They're completely right (as Carl privately admits), it's just that it's devastating to the defense's case.
    • Jake browbeats the mother of one of the rapists by asking her "How many other children did he rape?", causing her to burst into tears. Seems cruel, but that is precisely why her son was dead.note 
  • 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 prominent 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 Dragon is killed, but Freddie and the remaining Klan members continue to try to intimidate Jake into stepping down as Carl's defense attorney, doing everything from phoning death threats to kidnapping members of his team to burning down his house. It doesn't work.
  • Last-Name Basis: Jake consistently calls Ellen "Roark", making it very significant when he calls her by her first name when visiting her in the hospital.
  • 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.
  • Men Can't Keep House: Jake sheepishly admits to Ellen that he's Going Commando because the laundry has been piling up since his wife left town.
  • 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.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • Jake tells Ellen to leave his office, knowing that they'll succumb to temptation if she stays. She's subsequently kidnapped and assaulted by the Klan while driving home.
    • He also puts Carl Lee on the stand, something even the worst defense attorney knows is generally NOT a good idea. Sure enough, the prosecutor gets Carl Lee to admit that he knew what he was doing when he shot his daughter's rapists, effectively torpedoing his insanity defense.note 
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Buckley puts the injured Deputy Looney on the stand... who states that he has no ill will towards Carl Lee and that he would have done the same thing. He also puts the mother of one of the rapists on the stand. Jake promptly asks her "how many other children did he rape?", reminding the jury of just why her son is dead.
  • No Indoor Voice: "Yes, they deserved to die, and I hope they burn in Hell!"
  • "No" Means "Yes": Ethel vehemently denies to Jake and Harry that she had an affair with Lucien. After she storms off, the two of them look at each other and declare, "She did him.", clearly having taken her denial as confirmation (she was actually his father's mistress and mother of his half-brother in the book-obviously an Age Lift happened).
  • The Not-Love Interest: Jake and Ellen, despite the very strong mutual attraction, but Jake nixes it before it can even get started, no doubt because he's Happily Married.
  • Obviously Evil: The two rapists. From the moment they first appear on screen, you just know they're going to do something terrible.
  • Papa Wolf: Carl Lee Hailey, obviously. Deputy Looney also counts, as he says he would have done the same thing—"I got a little girl. Somebody rapes her, he's a dead dog. I'll blow him away just like Carl Lee did."
  • Penultimate Outburst: Happens twice. Once after Carl is badgered into shouting "Yeah, they deserved to die and I hope they burn in hell!" and once after the unintentional victim of his shootout says he agrees with the main character's actions and that they should "turn him loose!"
  • Rape and Revenge: Carl Lee Hailey guns down two men in retaliation for the brutal rape of his daughter Tonya. Mr. Hailey's lawyer successfully convinces a jury that this was a just act.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: In the book, Jake argues this during his closing statement:
    "With murder, the victim is gone, and not forced to deal with what happened to her. The family must deal with it, but not the victim. But rape is much worse. The victim has a lifetime of coping, of trying to understand, of asking questions, and, the worst part, of knowing the rapist is still alive and may someday escape or be released. Every hour of every day, the victim thinks of the rape and asks herself a thousand questions. She relives it, step by step, minute by minute, and it hurts just as bad."
  • Race Lift: The novel is based on the real life rape of Julie and Marcie Scott, who were White, while their assailant, Willie James Harris, was black.
  • Shameful Strip: Ellen's shirt is torn and her skirt is ripped off after being tied up by the Klan.
  • Scary Black Man: Played by Samuel L. Jackson even.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, Stump Sisson, only appears in a few scenes before being burned to death by a molotov cocktail thrown by a protester. However, his setting up a local chapter of the KKK continues to cause problems for the rest of the movie.
  • Smug Snake: DA Rufus Buckley carries a pompousness about him.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Max the dog, Klan informant "Mickey Mouse", and Dr. Tyler Bass' unseen wife all die in the book, but not the movie.
  • Time Bomb: It didn't have a timer, but one of the Klan's attempts to terrorize Jake featured an attempt to sneak a ticking bomb up to his house.
  • Two Decades Behind: The premise is absurdly anachronistic, especially since the South wasn't that backward in the late 1980s and the Klan was rapidly being supplanted by neo-Nazi youth gangs by that point.
  • 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.
    (Later, when she's in the hospital)
    Jake: We make a hell of a team, Roark.
    Ellen: We might have.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The novel was described by John Grisham as "very autobiographical" in that the novel's "young attorney is basically me" and in that the drama was based on a 1984 rape case he witnessed in Hernado, Mississippi which had made him wish to murder the rapist, Willie James Harris. Then he created a story where the victim's father did so based on that.
  • 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) judge, 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 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?
  • Wham Line: Now imagine she's white. Although, the line loses a lot of its power when you consider that in the real case the novel is based on, the victims were White.
  • Worth It: While Carl Lee regrets his Vigilante Execution's effects on the Cobb and Willard families, he doesn't regret killing Billy Ray and James one bit. Understandable, though, given their complete and unrepentant scumbaggery.

Alternative Title(s): A Time To Kill