Joel Schumacher’s name is a by-word for awful, thanks to being the man who did what the Joker never could and killing Batman. Nerds everywhere have never forgiven him for Batman and Robin, which is quite unfair as he’s actually a very talented director.
A Time To Kill is like a more complex To Kill a Mockingbird, with its racial themes and courtroom setting. When Carl Lee’s (Samuel L Jackson) daughter is raped, he takes matters into his own hands and murders the perpetrators before their trial, for fear they may get away with it in the biased court system. He is quickly apprehended and gets put on trial for the crime. The inexperienced Jack Brigance (Matthew McCounaughey) is hired to be his defence, and sets about trying to get Carl Lee’s acquittal. During the trial he and his family are targeted by members of the Ku Klux Klan who threaten to derail the process.
My main problem with this film is not the way it’s made, but its message. Carl Lee clearly commits murder. We see him shoot two people to death and injure a bystander. Yet the good guys in the film set out to get him acquitted and serve no time at all. True, the court system is biased, and where the white people who raped his daughter may have gone free, he would almost certainly have faced death, but two wrongs don’t make a right. Carl Lee is offered 20 years in prison if he pleads guilty, which he refuses. That is, in spite of being guilty.
His defence then proceeds to argue for his innocence on grounds of insanity, even though they all openly admit outside the courtroom that he was, in fact, sane at the time of the crime. This film thinks that it’s acceptable to take the law into your own hands if you don’t like a verdict, and also that it’s ok to pervert the course of justice to escape punishment.
No-one is prepared to say to Carl Lee “I understand why you did that, but you knew the consequences and now you have to face them”, they all treat him like an innocent man. It would be less of a problem if this was a film that was a dispassionate look at a specific situation. But here it’s made it’s clear who we’re supposed to root for and whose side we should be on (mostly because the people against Carl Lee are all racists) meaning the ethics of what he does is never challenged.
Aside from this it’s very well done. We get great performances from Jackson and McConaughey, as well as Sandra Bullock as Jack’s plucky legal assistant and Kevin Spacey as the local DA. This film shows what a loss Jackson’s primarily action-based career choices of the last ten years are to serious drama.
It also does a good job of handling its racial themes. For well insulated liberals it’s healthy to be reminded of times and places where the values we take for granted had to be fought for and defended with people’s lives, although this is undermined by the disregard the characters have for due process. It also falls down with an ending that’s too implausible to work, which leaves you wishing it was more like To Kill a Mockingbird. Short and sweet.