In Canton, Mississippi, ten-year old African American Tonya Hailey is abducted, raped, and beaten by two white supremacists, Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. The duo dump her in a nearby river after a failed attempt to hang her. Tonya survives, and the two men are arrested by Sheriff Ozzie Walls.
Tonya's father, Carl Lee Hailey, contacts Jake Brigance, a white lawyer. Brigance admits the possibility that the rapists will walk free. Carl Lee goes to the county courthouse and opens fire with an automatic rifle, killing both rapists and unintentionally injuring Deputy Dwayne Looney with a richochet. Carl Lee is arrested and Brigance agrees to defend him.
The rape and subsequent revenge killing gain national media attention. The district attorney, Rufus Buckley, decides to seek the death penalty, and presiding Judge Omar Noose denies Brigance a change of venue to a more ethnically diverse county, meaning that Carl Lee will have an all-white jury. Brigance seeks help from his defense team: law student Ellen Roark, close friend Harry Rex Vonner, and former mentor and longtime activist Lucien Wilbanks, a once-great civil rights lawyer.
Meanwhile, Freddie Lee Cobb plans to avenge his brother Billy Ray's death by enlisting the help of the Mississippi branch of the Ku Klux Klan and its Grand Dragon, Stump Sisson. On the first day of the trial, the Klan rallies only to be outnumbered by counter-protesters consisting of the area's black and multiracial residents as well as some whites who support Carl Lee. The protest erupts into a riot that results in dozens of injuries and the death of Stump Sisson. The Klan also begins to target Brigance, assaulting his elderly secretary and her husband (who ends up dying of a fatal heart attack brought on by the assault), burning a cross on his lawn and threatening his wife and daughter. When Brigance refuses to back down, Cobb kidnaps and assaults Roark. The Klan increases their attacks, including burning Brigance's house.
Dispirited, Brigance tells Carl Lee that there is little hope for an acquittal. Carl Lee replies that he had chosen him as an attorney because even a racist jury would listen to a white man; as "one of the bad guys", he has an influence that a black man will never have.
During closing arguments, a deeply shaken Brigance tells the jury to close their eyes and listen to a story. He describes, in slow and painful detail, the rape of a 10-year-old girl, recalling the story of Tonya's rape. He then asks the jury, in his final comment, to "now imagine she's white."
After deliberation, a black child runs out of the courthouse and screams, "He's innocent!" Jubilation ensues amongst the supporters outside. The Klan, enraged, begins yelling in anger. Meanwhile, Sheriff Walls arrests Freddie Lee for his crimes, as well as a corrupted deputy that was by Freddie's side.
Brigance brings his wife and daughter to a family cookout at Carl Lee's house to celebrate his freedom.Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee Hailey
Matthew McConaughey as Jake Brigance
Kevin Spacey as Rufus Buckley
Sandra Bullock as Ellen Roark
Brenda Fricker as Ethel Twitty
Oliver Platt as Harry Rex Vonner
Charles S. Dutton as Ozzie Walls
Ashley Judd as Carla Brigance
Patrick McGoohan as Judge Omar Noose
Kiefer Sutherland as Freddie Lee Cobb
Donald Sutherland as Lucien Wilbanks
John Diehl as Tim Nunley
Doug Hutchison as James Louis "Pete" Willard
Nicky Katt as Billy Ray Cobb
Chris Cooper as Dwayne Looney
Anthony Heald as Dr. Wilbert Rodeheaver
Kurtwood Smith as Stump Sisson
Tonea Stewart as Gwen Hailey
Rae'Ven Larrymore Kelly as Tonya Hailey
M. Emmet Walsh as Dr. Willard Tyrell Bass
According to Boxofficemojo.com, the movie performed well, earning over $108 million domestically.
The film received mostly positive reviews from critics, earning a 67% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 51 reviews, a critical consensus reading: "Overlong and superficial, A Time to Kill nonetheless succeeds on the strength of its skillful craftsmanship and top-notch performances". It has a score of 54 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 21 reviews.
Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, saying: "I was absorbed by A Time to Kill, and found the performances strong and convincing," and added that "this is the best of the film versions of Grisham novels, I think, and it has been directed with skill by Joel Schumacher."
The film was not without its detractors, however. Anthony Puccinelli gave the film one star, calling it "worthless" and remarking: "A Time to Kill argues for vigilantism but disguises its message by making the vigilante black, allowing viewers to think their blood lust and thirst for revenge is actually empathy for the oppressed." Peter Travers felt that "they [Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman] cram[med] in too much," adding, "This distracts from the heart of the picture, which is in the bond between Carl Lee (the brilliant [Samuel L.] Jackson is quietly devastating) and Jake, a husband and father who knows he, too, would have shot anyone who raped his little girl." Gene Siskel remarked it was "An overwrought, contrived courtroom thriller", "cornball" and concluded "This story has been recycled out of countless better movies."
Grisham enjoyed the film, remarking: "When all was said and done I was happy with it, happy we were able to find a kid like Matthew McConaughey. It wasn't a great movie, but it was a good one."
In France, the film has been the subject of much controversy. Critics have accused the movie of making an apology for the death penalty and right of self-defense. A question mark was added at the end of the title ("Le Droit de tuer ?"/"The Right to Kill ?") so as not to shock the audience. Amnesty International France uses the word "disturbing" when referring to the film in one of its documents. Les Inrockuptibles described the film as "nauseating", "stinking", almost "fascist", with a script "ultra-populist" that makes you want to "vomit". Libération criticized the script, calling it "extremely dirty": the movie, says the newspaper, "militates in favour of the black cause only to legitimize, after many plot buckles (resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan, the deceits of court, threats of [m]any kinds) the mentally ill gesture of the avenging father". According to Libération, the movie "justifies the indefensible" with a "dripping sentimentalism".Golden Globe – Best Supporting Actor – Samuel L. Jackson – Nominated
NAACP Image Award – Outstanding Motion Picture – Won
NAACP Image Award – Best Supporting Actor in a film – Samuel L. Jackson – Nominated
Blockbuster Entertainment Award – Favorite Actress – Suspense – Sandra Bullock – Won
MTV Movie Awards – Best Female Performance – Sandra Bullock – Nominated
MTV Movie Awards – Best Breakthrough Performance – Matthew McConaughey – Won
Razzie Award – Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 Million – Akiva Goldsman – Nominated
Stinkers Bad Movie Awards – Worst Supporting Actress – Brenda Fricker – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Courtroom Drama Film
Elliot Goldenthal scored the film. AllMusic gave the soundtrack two and a half stars out of five, commenting that it "doesn't work particularly well when it's separated from the film itself."
- "Defile and Lament" – 2:33
- "Consolation" – 2:23
- "Justice Wheel" – 0:46
- "Pavane for Solace" – 2:29
- "Abduction" – 2:58
- "An Asurrendering" – 1:35
- "Pavane for Loss" – 1:07
- "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" / "Retribution" by The Jones Sisters – 6:50
- "Torch and Hood" – 2:02
- "Pressing Judgement" – 1:29
- "White Sheet" – 2:38
- "Pavane for Solace" (piano solo) – 2:06
- "Verdict Fanfare" (For Aaron) – 4:03
- "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" by Cissy Houston – 4:03
CreditsMusic composed by Elliot Goldenthal (except 8 and 14)
Music produced by Matthias Gohl
Orchestrated by Robert Elhai and Elliot Goldenthal
Conducted by Jonathan Sheffer
Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki
Electronic music produced by Richard Martinez
Additional orchestrations by Deniz Hughes