A Time to Kill (1996 film)

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A Time to Kill
Time to kill poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Produced by
Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman
Based on A Time to Kill
by John Grisham
Music by Elliot Goldenthal
Cinematography Peter Menzies Jr.
Edited by William Steinkamp
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date
  • July 24, 1996 (1996-07-24)
Running time
149 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $40 million[1]
Box office $152 million[1]

A Time to Kill is a 1996 American crime drama film based on John Grisham's 1989 novel of the same name, directed by Joel Schumacher. Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, and Kevin Spacey star, with Oliver Platt, Ashley Judd, Kiefer and Donald Sutherland, and Patrick McGoohan appearing in supporting roles. Set in Mississippi, the film involves the rape of a young girl, the arrest of the rapists, their subsequent murder by the girl's father, and the father's trial for murder. The film was a critical and commercial success, making $152 million at the worldwide box office.[2]


In the fictional town of Clanton, 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 who previously defended his brother. 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 ricochet, whose leg is later amputated. 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.



Box office performance

According to Boxofficemojo.com, the movie performed well, earning over $108 million domestically.

Critical reception

The film received mostly positive reviews from critics, earning a 67% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 51 reviews,[3] 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.[4]

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."[5]

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."[6] 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."[7] 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."[8]

Reaction in France

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 ?"[9][10]) so as not to shock the audience. Amnesty International France uses the word "disturbing" when referring to the film in one of its documents.[11] Les Inrockuptibles described the film as "nauseating", "stinking", almost "fascist", with a script "ultra-populist" that makes you want to "vomit".[12] 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".[13]


  • 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:


A Time to Kill
Soundtrack album by Elliot Goldenthal
Released August 20, 1996
Genre Classical, avant-garde, modernist
Length 35:02
Label Atlantic
Producer Matthias Gohl
Elliot Goldenthal chronology
Michael Collins
(1996)Michael Collins1996
A Time to Kill
The Butcher Boy
(1998)The Butcher Boy1998

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."[15]

  1. "Defile and Lament" – 2:33
  2. "Consolation" – 2:23
  3. "Justice Wheel" – 0:46
  4. "Pavane for Solace" – 2:29
  5. "Abduction" – 2:58
  6. "An Asurrendering" – 1:35
  7. "Pavane for Loss" – 1:07
  8. "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" / "Retribution" by The Jones Sisters – 6:50
  9. "Torch and Hood" – 2:02
  10. "Pressing Judgement" – 1:29
  11. "White Sheet" – 2:38
  12. "Pavane for Solace" (piano solo) – 2:06
  13. "Verdict Fanfare" (For Aaron) – 4:03
  14. "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" by Cissy Houston – 4:03


  • Music 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

See also


  1. ^ a b "A Time to Kill – Box Office Data". The Numbers. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  2. ^ A Time to Kill at Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ A Time to Kill Movie Reviews, Pictures – Rotten Tomatoes
  4. ^ A Time to Kill Reviews, Ratings, Credits, and More at Metacritic
  5. ^ "A Time To Kill". Chicago Sun-Times. 
  6. ^ Chicago Reader
  7. ^ "Movie Reviews and Ratings from Peter Travers | Rolling Stone Movies". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2013-12-12. 
  8. ^ "Grisham v. Grisham: John Grisham issues judgment on ALL his novels" Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly, Feb 13, 2004
  9. ^ Le Droit de tuer ? (1996) – AlloCiné
  10. ^ A time to kill – Cinémathèque française Archived July 22, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2004-06-16. Retrieved 2010-04-06. [not in citation given]
  12. ^ Les Inrocks : Le Droit de tuer ? Archived 2010-07-04 at the Wayback Machine.
  13. ^ CINEMA. Sur fond de conflit racial et d'autodéfense, un «Droit de – Libération
  14. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Nominees" (PDF). Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2016-08-19. 
  15. ^ A Time to Kill at AllMusic

External links

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