Grisham + McConaughey = Dreadful
Main Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Oliver Platt, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey
Director: Joel Schumacher
Once upon a time, back in 19…………….something, I read a book called A Time to Kill written by the then newly famous John Grisham. The book wasn’t an easy page turner like The Firm and had, in fact, been written first. No, this book was more introspective, taking a fictional look at what could happen in a small town in the Deep South when racial tension erupts. Good topic, so-so book. When someone came up with the brilliant, money grubbing idea of turning the book into a movie in 1996, I thought vaguely that I should see it. Why? I have no idea. In the future, I’ll try to steer clear of cash cows based on bestselling books that I found mediocre even in written form.
A Time to Kill (the movie) stars Matthew McConaughey as young, struggling attorney Jake Brigance. Jake lives in Clanton, Mississippi and runs a practice originated by a brilliant but now disbarred attorney (Donald Sutherland). Jake has a perky blonde wife (Ashley Judd) who mysteriously seems to be perpetually oiled up as though she has just wrestled a greased pig. I guess we’re supposed to understand from this that it’s hot in Clanton, Mississippi, but all it convinced me of is that Ms. Judd has a nasty cleavage sweat problem. Jake also has a cute-as-a-button daughter, a crotchety but lovable secretary (Brenda Fricker) and a morally-bankrupt-but-deep-down-a-good-guy best friend (Oliver Platt). And Jake is handsome, handsome, handsome! Rumpled boyish charm, sexy southern drawl, those semi-intellectual rimless glasses, that oh so earnest view of the law. Oh, yes, our Jake is a hottie! And he doesn’t even have a peculiar sweating disorder!
Jake’s sexy Southern lawyer routine is rudely disrupted by the vicious rape of a ten-year-old girl and the subsequent violent reaction of her father. Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) finds himself in a heap of trouble for his act of retribution and counts on Jake to help him out of his spot of trouble.
Lots of machinations ensue, legal wrangling between Jake the sexy underdog and Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey) the smarmy instead of sexy district attorney. Yep, it’s sexy vs. smarmy, upstanding vs. corrupt, right vs. wrong, good vs. evil. Into this glorious one dimensional setting is plopped Sandra Bullock as Ellen Roark. Now Ellen is supposed to be a liberal crusader looking to help Carl Lee Hailey with her amazing legal skills (despite not yet having finished law school). But, lucky us (and her!), she’s actually a real purdy gal tossed in as a quasi-romantic subplot. So our sprightly crew of underdogs takes on The Man and his corrupt, KKK ways. And there’s your movie.
Pardon my clear disdain in summarizing the film, but, you see, the film is a real inspiration for clear disdain. The plot is far too simple given the set up. Where director Joel Schumacher should have given us subtle racial tension which builds and explodes, he gives us riots and beatings and burning crosses. There is no escalation in the tension; we catapult directly from the crimes to the height of hostilities. And then we stay there, with vulgar bad guys perpetrating vulgar act after vulgar act. The film has absolutely nothing to say about the tenuous nature of race relations and how those relations are strained during times of crisis. Rather, it’s all about stereotypically idiotic rednecks doing bad, bad things to our righteous, heroic legal team. Oh and there’s also Sandra looking cute. And it’s all set to the strains of an overly dramatic and intrusive score.
The performances are more or less what you’d expect. McConaughey has a clumsy, ludicrous, speech filled script to trip over. There is little he can really do to make diatribes about “saving the world one case at a time” more palatable. He’s window dressing, beefcake to spit out the pabulum that makes up his dialogue. His tearful closing argument, apart from being legally ludicrous in light of what has been previously admissible in the case, is absolutely wretched. The substance is there, but the way it’s written is vomitous.
Sandra Bullock is useless. Her part could be completely eliminated without affecting the film in the slightest. Well, except that we wouldn’t have anyone to tempt Jake to stray from his marriage. Like I said, totally, completely unnecessary; a pathetic attempt to toss in a pretty girl. Bullock is given nothing at all to work with and does exactly nothing with it. Her attempt to make this character breezy and loose with a super intellect and firm beliefs falls flat when she’s reduced to making comments about McConaughey’s butt.
Kiefer Sutherland as the main baddie is nothing but a caricature of a Southern redneck. The character is flat and bland and the performance lacks any kind of spark. He never makes us feel the rage that supposedly fuels his actions, and even the actions themselves smack of someone going through the motions. Acting mad instead of being mad. Even as he shouts racial epithets he simply doesn’t give off enough menace. The two men in the beginning of the film that set events in motion are far more repugnant than Sutherland is in the entire rest of the film. For a character that is supposed to personify “bad” to our heroes “good”, this is a rather glaring flaw.
Now you may wonder why this isn’t a one star stellar flop. The answer is in the supporting cast – though by no means all of them. As much as it pains me to say it, even with his dimples, Spacey is as flat and bland as the others. His DA is boring, transparent and not well enough written to be an interesting bad guy. And there’s Donald Sutherland. Though it seems impossible that anyone could be given more gag worthy lines that McConaughey, writers Grisham and Akiva Goldsman have managed to accomplish this mighty feat. Every word that comes out of this crotchety old lawyer’s mouth sounds like something from an Inspiration for the Pompous and Insipid section of a Reader’s Digest quote book. And I don’t mean that in a good way.
So who, exactly, is any good? Oliver Platt and Samuel L. Jackson. Platt has some fun with the character of Harry Rex, divorce lawyer without a discernible scruple to be found. As the best friend of Jake, his absence of morals is positively refreshing. His dialogue isn’t any better than the rest, but he says his silly lines with a gleeful relish that makes them fun rather than stupid. His fluffy pompadour and tacky pinstriped suit set up this character to be likable in his persistent pursuit of debauchery. Platt does a really nice job with this small role and I fervently wish he had more screen time.
Then we have Carl Lee Hailey. Carl Lee is basically the only well written character in the film. This anguished, revenge seeking father is absolutely believable without devolving into the idiotic cliche-speak of the other characters. And Jackson pulls it all together. He’s not menacing, he’s devastated. He’s not tough, he’s destroyed by grief and anger. Jackson seems to fold in on himself and present Carl Lee as a scrawny, unimposing man. The only “speech” in the film that works is the one delivered by Jackson to McConaughey right before closing arguments. He’s earnest, truthful and smart. This is a good role and a good performance.
A Time to Kill is a film that wastes the opportunity to take a real look at these fragile race relations and instead chooses to make each character a caricature of either good or bad. On top of shoddy characterizations we get dreadful dialogue and insipid speechifying. The entirely stupid quasi-romantic subplot is a bore, the constant attention paid to each and every last detail of McConaughey’s appearance a nuisance. Only Jackson survives this mediocre-veering-sharply-toward-lousy film with a good performance as Carl Lee. He brings some heart to an otherwise bloodless bore of a film. That second star belongs entirely to him. The rest of the film not only has nothing to say, but says it with dialogue unworthy of this cast. If you feel you must know how the story turns out, read the book (or watch the first twenty minutes of the movie, the ending is perfectly telecast by how the characters are written). See the entire film if you’re a completely die hard fan of Samuel L. Jackson or have some deep seated need to watch pretty, pretty Matthew McConaughey spew ridiculous dialogue. 2 stars out of 5.