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Film Review: A Time to Kill

Updated on March 20, 2018
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Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.


In 1996, Joel Schumacher released A Time to Kill, based off of the 1989 novel of the same name by John Grisham. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Oliver Platt, Ashley Judd, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, and Patrick McGoohan, the film grossed $152.27 million at the box office.

Film Trailer


When two white supremacists come across and rape a ten year old black girl named Tonya in Canton, Mississippi, her father Carl Lee kills them. In the aftermath, lawyer Jake Brigance works to defend Lee in court.


A decent film, A Time To Kill seems to be a sort of spiritual successor of To Kill a Mockingbird. The only difference between the two being Carl Lee actually murdering the two men. Further, though the trial may be fair, it kicks off a divisive rift in the town between those who believe his crime to be justified and the town’s resident Klan members and Neo-Nazis. It becomes so heated the National Guard is called in after a riot commences. There’s is a sort of ironic death which occurs because of the riot too, with some hoodlums killing the leader of the Klan with a Molotov cocktail.

The racial divide present in the film is seen as a war going on in the nation, with Brigance seeing himself as Carl Lee's enemy but stating he's trying not to be the enemy. Brigance also gives a speech at the end, asking those in attendance at the trial to imagine Tonya’s rape as he retells it. However, he subverts their expectations as he reminds them she is a black girl.

Additionally, fair trial or not, the film explores what kind of man Carl Lee is and how much he cares for his daughter. He cares so much about her he murdered the men because of what they did and hopes they burn in hell. The deputy he shot says he would do the same thing. Moreover, Carl lee says the lack of remorse he has for killing them deeply disturbs him. Still, he claims the fact of them not able to terrorize anyone else anymore is the only thing helping him to sleep at night. It shows he wants to be remorseful because he committed a heinous act, yet can’t be because of who they were and what they did.

It subverts audience expectations in other ways as well. One of them actually begins the film as Tonya is accosted, diverging from how children are usually untouchable in most films. The other attorney, while amoral, is actually kind of affable. After failing to get a conviction, he shows no ill will to Brigance, even shaking his hand. The prosecutor is also only trying to do his job and do it well, believing he should be punished because the law says so. In the choice to do what’s in accordance with the law or to ignore the law, believing Carl Lee might be justified in some way, he chooses the law. Brigance and the law student who helps him with case don’t get together in any way either, in spite of both of them wanting to. Brigance is so committed to his marriage he doesn’t want to jeopardize it. In fact, after an attempt on his life, she asks if he wants her to stay. He says he does, therefore she better leave.

Despite the above making it seem like the film is more than good, what makes it decent is the writing is average. The climax does include a great speech by Brigance, making it seem as if more time was spent crafting this moment than other areas.

3 stars for A Time to Kill

the postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent WNI's positions, strategies or opinion

Awards & Recognitions

bold indicates reception of award/recognition

ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards

  • Top Box Office Film

Blockbuster Entertainment Awards

  • Favorite Actress - Suspense (Sandra Bullock)
  • Favorite Supporting Actor - Suspense (Samuel L. Jackson)

Chicago Film Critics Association Awards

  • Most Promising Actor (Matthew McConaughey)

Golden Globe Awards

  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Samuel L. Jackson)

Grammy Awards

  • Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television ("Defile and Lament")

Image Awards

  • Outstanding Motion Picture
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (Samuel L. Jackson)
  • Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (Charles S. Dutton)
  • Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture (Tonea Stewart)
  • Outstanding Youth Actor/Actress (Rae Ven Kelly)

Jupiter Award

  • Best International Actress (Sandra Bullock)

MTV Movie Awards

  • Best Breakthrough Performance (Matthew McCanaughey)
  • Best Female Performance (Sandra Bullock)
  • Best Villain (Kiefer Sutherland)

Online Film & Television Association Awards

  • Best Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson)

Razzie Awards

  • Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 Million

The Stinkers Bad Movie Awards

  • Worst Supporting Actress (Brenda Fricker)

YoungStar Awards

  • Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Drama Film (Rae Ven Kelly)


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