Granted, I don’t remember loving this film even when I first saw it, back when I was younger and probably more easily won over by movies that took on tough issues; but I don’t remember exactly disliking it either. In any case, it either doesn’t stand the test of time or it wasn’t very good in the first place. My wife put it on, watched about a half an hour, and then said, “I’m already bored. This is too predictable.” Then she fell asleep and for some reason, I watched it to the end just to see if it would get any better. It never does.

The problem with A Time To Kill is that it’s just so overwhelmingly average. This same issue, which took over two hours to tell in ATtK, could have been handled in an hour on Law & Order, and the treatment of the issue would have been far more nuanced and wouldn’t have ended with a fairy tale. Sadly, the film really doesn’t have a lot to say, and I wish it did–primarily, because I wouldn’t have wasted over two hours of my life last night.

I’ll list out a few of the many problems with A Time to Kill. This is in no way complete. I would direct you to the “Hated It” reviews on the IMDb, as they’re generally pretty soundly reasoned.

  • Sam Jackson’s character is pretty much portrayed as a hero throughout. I suppose I can understand to some extent how it feels good to think that way–I’d certainly want to kill anybody who raped and attempted to murder my daughter, though I wouldn’t actually do it. But sanctioning vigilante justice is a pernicious notion, one that leads to the sort of behavior practiced by villains such as the Ku Klux Klan. A Time to Kill gives this ethical dilemma about as much attention as a Silver Age issue of Detective Comics.
  • The business with Kiefer Sutherland’s character and the Ku Klux Klan is just so ridiculously contrived and over-the-top that it’s actually infuriating even more than it’s groan inducing. Sutherland and his buddies–amongst a host of violent and criminal acts–try to kill Sandra Bullock’s character (she sees Sutherland’s face), and at the end of the film, he’s still walking around a free man. That is, until a quick narrative sweep-up moment at the conclusion of trial when all of a sudden, the sheriff decides it’s finally time to arrest this guy who has not very subtly been terrorizing half the town. The lack of commitment to exploring the Klan subplot seems wrong on so many levels. The National Guard had to be brought in–why wasn’t anybody trying to bust up the KKK? Wouldn’t the cops at least question the redneck brother of the dead rapist when everybody associated with the trial, including McConaughey’s secretary, became targets of assassination attempts?
  • And then there’s the bit about McConaughey’s wife leaving with the daughter for her parents’ house, because she thinks he’s more interested in getting his face on the television than in the safety of his family–oh, but she changes her mind eventually, not for any particularly good reason, and not because she was necessarily wrong about him in the first place, since the character really did seem like an attention whore.
  • And let’s not forget how McConaughey was about one kiss away from having an affair with Sandra Bullock within about five minutes of his wife walking out–we’re supposed to like this guy?
  • The judge (Patrick McGoohan, who’s one of the few good things about this film) rejects the change of venue request and informs McConaughey that he has been assured his decision will be upheld. Um, could anybody in the world really think this trial could proceed fairly in that venue when the Ku Klux Klan had already started running wild, attempting to kill the defense attorney, burning crosses and exercising other means of intimidation, and so on? If Sam Jackson had been convicted, wouldn’t this all have been grounds for an appeal? A soldier is killed on the steps of the courthouse, for crying out loud! Look, I have little understanding of how the judicial system works, but it seems as though all of this, combined with the fact that there wasn’t a single black person on the jury, should show after the fact that it was impossible for the guy to be tried fairly in that venue. Oh, and there was the fact that the judge initially rejected the change of venue before it was even requested, so we can’t really trust he gave it due consideration.
  • By the way, the judge’s name is Judge Noose. Noose? Seriously?
  • Matthew McConaughey’s character seems to be a terrible trial lawyer. He does almost nothing to further the cause of his insanity defense, yet wins anyway.

A Time to Kill was maybe well intentioned, but in the end, it was also misguided and bereft of anything resembling subtlety. The treatment was shallow in its approach to racism and justice and uninspiring ideologically or philosophically. Don’t get me started on the “imagine she’s white” speech, which takes 12 jurors who are ready, to a man, to vote guilty (one of whom is shown to say, “that nigger is gonna fry”) and convinces every single one to vote not guilty. It’s all just too pat and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I’m appending a review from the IMDb, just because I think this is a great story:

I’ve had a grudge against this movie for five years.

It should have been a great night out. I was going to propose to my girl after a cosy dinner and a visit to the flicks.

But after staggering from A Time To Kill, the mood had gone. We were both so appalled by the stereotyped characters and lightweight script. A good story was turned into mush by these movie grave-robbers who waded through the pantheon of great films to steal ideas and by sheer laziness turned them into stale cliches. Added to which, the character played by Sandra Bullock must be one of the flimsiest ever to insult a big money blockbuster.

Not a night to propose marriage, after all.

We watched Casablanca on video a few nights later, thankfully, and we’ve been happily married ever since.