"A Time to Kill" Movie Summary

by Melinda Hill Mendoza

"A Time to Kill" is based on John Grisham's first book. The movie is set in Mississippi and follows the trial of Carl Lee Hailey, who is played by Samuel L. Jackson. Matthew McConaughey plays his lawyer, Jake Brigance, whose small-town law practice is floundering. Jake agrees to defend Carl Lee in a case that sparks racial tension and a renewal of the Ku Klux Klan, risking his family, his reputation and his life.

The Beginning

The movie opens with the disturbing and brutal rape of Carl Lee's 10-year-old daughter Tonya by two white men, James Louis "Pete" Willard and Billy Ray Cobb, who go on to brag about the rape at a local bar. Tonya is discovered and taken to the hospital, and her father is distraught and enraged. Carl Lee knows a similar case from the previous year resulted in an acquittal for the rapists, so when the two men are escorted through the courthouse, Carl Lee shoots them, killing them both and wounding a deputy.

Before the Trial

Carl Lee is arrested, and he chooses Jake to be his lawyer, since Jake once defended his brother on a lesser charge. The prosecuting attorney, played by Kevin Spacey, is planning to run for political office, and winning such a high-profile case would bring him the status and publicity he needs. Jake consults with his former mentor (Donald Sutherland) and a colleague (Oliver Platt). The trial also draws the attention of wealthy law student Ellen Roark, played by Sandra Bullock. Ellen provides Jake with much-needed research during the trial.

The Trial

When the trial begins, there is a violent confrontation outside the courtroom between the KKK and Carl Lee's supporters, and the Grand Dragon of the KKK is killed. This motivates the KKK to burn crosses and threaten Jake and his family, causing his wife (Ashley Judd) and daughter to leave town for the duration of the trial. Jake and Ellen grow closer as the trial continues, and the KKK escalates its violence, burning down Jake's house, attacking his secretary and kidnapping and beating Ellen. All eyes are on the trial as it draws to a close, with Carl Lee pleading "not guilty" by reason of temporary insanity.

Critical Reception

Critical response to "A Time to Kill" was largely positive. New York Times critic Janet Maslin lauded the movie's outstanding cast and sweeping story, but criticized the casting of Sandra Bullock as Ellen, calling Bullock "too mature for this role and too flippant for this movie." Roger Ebert also positively reviewed the movie, calling it absorbing and the acting persuasive, though the ending left him "a little confused."