A Time to Kill (1996)

(On TV, July 2016) There was a time, before the McConnaissance, before the Decade of Rom-Coms, when Matthew McConaughey was hailed as a promising young actor, and A Time to Kill (alongside Contact, Amistad and Lone Star) was part of the evidence. Watching it today is like unearthing vintage McConaughey, made even better by the calibre of the cast surrounding him. Samuel L. Jackson in a genuinely unsettling angry father role? Kevin Spacey as a slimy prosecutor? Sandra Bullock as the brilliant girl who comes to save the day? Ashley Judd, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Oliver Platt, Chris Cooper as part of the scenery? Not bad at all. While director Joel Schumaker lets the film run long, he knows what he’s doing in giving it a sweaty high-polish gloss. (Do I need to highlight once more the disappearance of the big-budget standalone thriller in today’s Hollywood industry?) The story is adapted reasonably faithfully from the John Grisham novel, including the uncomfortable considerations of vigilantism. In fact, the movie may be a bit more upsetting in the way it squarely places its sympathies with the justice-seeker and conflating it with a victory for the oppressed (as in; racists are bad, so they get what they deserve and never mind the judicial process.) There’s unpleasant stuff going just under the glossy surface of the story, and it’s not clear whether this is entirely intentional from either Grisham or the screenwriter. Still, A Time to Kill can coast a long time on the charm and persona of its stars. In the end, it’s a film best seen for its cast and execution than for moral questions left untouched.

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