Movie Review: A Time to Kill

© 1997 Dan Heller

Quick Review: You've seen the commercials: a 30-second preview. Then you've seen the trailers in the theater before other movies start: a 5-minute preview. Now see the movie: a 2-hour preview.

The movie is exactly what the previews tell you: a girl is raped, her father kills the rapists, and the rest of the movie is his trial. There are no surprises, no gripping events, no terrific acting jobs, and not much to believe. So, like a long movie preview, you see lots of unconnected and undeveloped events that expect to bind more tightly in the real movie. There are lots of characters, lots of subplots, and lots of dialog, none of which are very deep or well developed. You can tell that they tried to squeeze too much from the book into the movie, so you're left with a lot of loose, unimportant (or just uninteresting) events and figures. There is no buildup to the trial; you don't share any of the intense preparations or the legal hurdles that you'd expect to run into during a trial, or even compelling testimony at the trial itself.

The success of the trial and the movie itself rest on an emotional climax at the end. They put all their eggs in that one basket. To do so, it presents the notion that southerners are so racial, segregated and ready to do whatever it takes to preserve God's will, that you are overwhelmed with emotion when those backwards people are moved by an emotional speech from the defense attorney. It doesn't work for many reasons: first, you shouldn't have to play up such extremely simplified and unflattering stereotypes to magnify the effect of their "turn around". It loses credibility. In order for that to work, you have to have some sympathy for them at some degree to share the pain of having to to change your mind. Secondly, after a couple of blunders by the defense, they finally decide to appeal to the jury's sense of "justice", which becomes the focal point of the final summation. The problem is, we are still on the heels of the OJ Simpson trial, where we've seen a jury define "justice" to be anything they want to prove to society in defense of themselves. (There's no way this jury would have done "the right thing" in the name of justice. "Which jury" am I referring to? You choose.)

The movie is chock full of big stars, none of which were cast well in their capacities, except for Keifer Sutherland, who plays (prepare yourself) a KKK leader! Gee, imagine that. His father, Donald Sutherland, plays (no, not the clumsy waiter), the inspirational law professor who turns alcoholic and has no bearing on the movie in any way. Sandra Bullock plays an overly sexy "brilliant law student" who seems to know everything, but is discarded by the sexist defense attorney. Lastly, but not leastly, Samuel L. Jackson plays the father who committed the murders. he's a good actor, but was unable to single-handedly save the movie. (Oh, and Kevin Spacey plays the DA, and I must admit, he had a good accent.)

If you want to see a good, gripping movie of this genre, see To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck is the kind of attorney you'd want.
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