I've been taken to task in the past for being unable to separate the moral position a film occupies, and its objective virtues as a piece of craftsmanship. I remain unrepentant. In attempting to assess the overall worth of a movie and the effectiveness of its chosen cinematic agenda, I find that a film's ethical position is as integral to the whole as the quality of its writing, direction, performance, and production values. Thus, I have a huge problem with 'A Time to Kill.' Here is a movie that's certainly well-made entertainment, but whose message I find borders on dangerous and offensive.
Based on John Grisham's popular novel, the author has stated publicly that of all his books, it is closest to his heart in terms of subject matter and viewpoint. As such, he exerted an unprecedented level of control over its cinematic adaptation. He's listed as a producer on the film, and reportedly had great input in the screenplay (which was created to Akiva Goldsman), the choice of director, and even the casting. As such, 'A Time to Kill' can't be accused of messing with the source material, or twisting its values for commercial effect. It remains surprisingly true to its source. Which is doubly troubling.
The story is, without a doubt, engineered to push buttons. It begins in a burst of violence, when 10 year-old Tonya Hailey, the daughter of Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), is brutally raped and beaten by two local white "rednecks." Rather than suffer what is expected to be an acquittal, Hailey grabs shotgun and mows down the two perpetrators, and inadvertently, also injures a local deputy (Chris Cooper). This leads to an incendiary trial, where Hailey smartly chooses an ambitious young lawyer to represent him, Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), along with Brigance's crackerjack team, including an excitable assistant (Sandra Bullock) and a wise old mentor (Donald Sutherland). Throw in an unscrupulous DA (Kevin Spacey) and the local KKK (led by a villainous Kiefer Sutherland), and racial tensions are soon brought to a breaking point as Hailey awaits his fate by jury.
All of this could have been ripe grist for a serious and objective look at the issues of vigilantism, racism, and the inequities of our legal system. Had it been even more exploitative, it might have simply made for a fine southern gothic melodrama. Instead, we get what feels exactly like the pious ode to wanton and reckless violence the film continually refuses to cop to. Couched in a pretentious (and ultimately hypocritical) sense of artificiality and distance from its real moral positions, the movie purports not to "take sides" when that is all it does from frame one.
I will not spoil the film's narrative twists and turns, nor the final outcome of the trial, other than to say that it's clearly obvious early on what the verdict will be. Director Joel Schumacher and writer Goldsman change little from Grisham's novel. Some characters have been compressed and subplots omitted (though not as many as you might think, as the film still feels a bit overstuffed with unrelated business), but otherwise, Grisham's point of view remains intact. Here's a film that seems to endorse taking the law into your own hands, as long as you have a "justifiable" reason to do so.
Worse, the film's trafficking in racial issues felt exploitative to me. I had to wonder, what if the race of Hailey and the attackers had been reversed. Would the film still expect its audience to side with a white man who violently guns down two black men on the front of the steps of a courthouse, and wound another, who had nothing to do with the original crime? That 'A Time to Kill' also touches on issues of capital punishment and fair representation is not a problem in itself, but even here, the film doesn't have the backbone (or simply can't be bothered) to take a position. It throws out these themes, but has little to say about them. It's button-pushing for the sake of it, and I felt manipulated throughout.
I can't deny that 'A Time to Kill' is handsomely shot, nicely paced, and well acted. McConaughey has probably never been better or more impassioned, and Jackson brings a palpable rage to Hailey. You'd also be hard-pressed to find a more impressive supporting cast than Spacey, Bullock, Platt, Cooper, and two generations of Sutherlands. But 'A Time to Kill' ultimately protects itself by having us believe it is examining issues without supporting them, when in reality it stacks the deck so relentlessly it feels cowardly. Watching 'A Time to Kill' just made me feel a bit dirty.
'A Time to Kill' receives a 1080p/VC-1 encode, framed at 2.35:1. The original DVD was released way back in 1997, and looked quite good for its time. This new transfer appears fresh, and I must say the image was even better than I expected -- this is very good high-def indeed.
What most impresses about 'A Time to Kill' is how bright, well-saturated, and full of depth the image appears, yet the transfer retains a wonderful naturalness and film-like look throughout. Detail is up there with the best catalog titles I've seen of the same vintage, with a nicely-textured image and excellent close-ups. Colors are very rich and clean, too, with spot-on fleshtones. Warner has also produced another fine encode with nary an artifact or bit of noise to be found. Very, very nice.
Warner provides a first-ever high-res audio option for 'A Time the Kill,' giving the film the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround treatment (48kHz/16-bit). It's a sharp soundtrack, with plenty that benefits from the upgrade.
I was often surprised by how forceful the surround channels could be when needed. Though the film is hardly a non-stop action-fest, there are enough moments of palpable power that the rears get a good workout. Directionality, pans, and overall ambiance are well-done. Stereo separation is likewise pronounced, with excellent fidelity and dynamics. The subwoofer can deliver some surprisingly hefty low bass, too. Dialogue remains clear and well-balanced throughout. 'A Time to Kill' sounds just about as good as it looks.
Sadly, Warner has not seen fit to give 'A Time to Kill' the special edition treatment. Though I had many problems with the film, that only makes me want to hear more about the thought processes of those who made it. This is about as bare bones a Blu-ray as you're going to find.
I have to admit, 'A Time to Kill' made me queasy. I just find the film's conclusions about vigilante justice to be morally suspect. I can't deny that it's a well-made, well- acted film, however, so it's still worth seeing to make up your own mind. This Blu-ray delivers unquestionably fine video and audio, but a lack of supplements. Worth a rental, though even diehard fans may be disappointed if they purchase this expecting more than a bare bones catalog release.