A Time to Kill (1996 film)

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

A Time to Kill is a 1996 American legal drama film. It is based on John Grisham's 1989 novel of the same name. Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, and Samuel L. Jackson star with Donald and Kiefer Sutherland appearing in supporting roles. The film received mixed to positive reviews and was a commercial success, making $152 million at the worldwide box office. [2] It is the second of two films based on Grisham's novels directed by Joel Schumacher, with the other being The Client released two years prior.



In Canton, Mississippi, ten-year-old African American girl Tonya Hailey is abducted, raped, and beaten by two local white men, Billy Ray Cobb and James Willard, while on her way home. 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 wounding Deputy Dwayne Looney, whose leg is later amputated. Carl Lee is arrested and Brigance agrees to defend him.

As the rape and subsequent revenge killing gain national media attention, 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, Billy Ray's brother, Freddie Lee Cobb, plans to avenge his brother's death by joining and enlisting the help of the Mississippi branch of the Ku Klux Klan and its Grand Dragon, Stump Sisson, to ensure Carl Lee's conviction and death sentence by any means necessary.

On the first day of the trial, the Klan rallies, only to be outnumbered by counter-protesters consisting of the area's minority residents and whites who support Carl Lee. The protest erupts into a violent brawl 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 dies of a heart attack brought on by the assault. They also burn a cross on his lawn and threaten his wife and daughter. When Brigance refuses to back down, Cobb kidnaps and assaults Roark. The Klan then 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 Brigance as an attorney because he is a white man and has insight into how the jury sees Carl Lee. "When you look at me, you don't see a man, you see a black man. (...) You are my secret weapon because you are one of the bad guys. You don't mean to be, but you are. It's how you was raised. (...) No matter how you see me, you see me different, you see me like that jury sees me, you are them. (...) If you was on that jury, what would it take to convince you to set me free?". 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 entire ordeal of Tonya, in which some of the jurors shed tears. Brigance 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 while the Klan becomes enraged over their defeat. Meanwhile, Sheriff Walls arrests Freddie Lee for his crimes, as well as a corrupt deputy who is also revealed to be a Klan member.

Brigance brings his wife and daughter to a family cookout at Carl Lee's house to celebrate his freedom, challenging Carl Lee's previous statement that their children would "never play together".



The film was mainly produced in and around Canton, Mississippi, using a soundstage built specifically for the production in the city's industrial park. Most location filming took place around the Madison County Courthouse and former county jail on the courthouse grounds. Other location filming took place in the Jackson, Mississippi, metro area, including the Jackson-Evers International Airport and Hinds County Medical Center (now Merit Health Central).

Grisham had apparently not wanted to sell the film rights to the book. He sold the rights for a record $6 million. [3] He received casting approval for the film and overruled the director's choice of Woody Harrelson as the lead role, which was based on Grisham himself. Val Kilmer was also an early contender for the role. [4] Sandra Bullock also received $6 million for five weeks of work. [3]


Box office

A Time to Kill was released in the U.S. on July 24, 1996. It reached number one during its first two weeks and grossed over $108 million domestically. [5]

Critical reception

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 67% based on 58 reviews, with an average rating of 6.2/10. The critics' consensus reads: "Overlong and superficial, A Time to Kill nonetheless succeeds on the strength of its skillful craftsmanship and top-notch performances". [6] It has a score of 54 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 21 reviews. [7] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade of "A" on a scale of A+ to F. [8]

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." [9]

The film was not without its detractors. 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." [10] 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." [11] 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." [12]

Reaction in France

In France, the film has been the subject of 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 ?" [13] [14] ) so as not to shock the audience. Amnesty International France uses the word "disturbing" when referring to the film in one of its documents. [15] [ failed verification ] Les Inrockuptibles described the film as "nauseating", "stinking", almost "fascist", with an "ultra-populist" script that makes one want to "vomit". [16] 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 many kinds) the mentally ill gesture of the avenging father". According to Libération, the movie "justifies the indefensible" with a "dripping sentimentalism". [17]



A Time to Kill
Soundtrack album by
Elliot Goldenthal
ReleasedAugust 20, 1996
Genre Classical, avant-garde, modernist
Label Atlantic
Producer Matthias Gohl
Elliot Goldenthal chronology
Michael Collins
A Time to Kill
The Butcher Boy

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." [18]

  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


See also

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  14. A time to kill – Cinémathèque française Archived July 22, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  15. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2004-06-16. Retrieved 2010-04-06.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  16. Les Inrocks : Le Droit de tuer ? Archived 2010-07-04 at the Wayback Machine
  17. "CINEMA. Sur fond de conflit racial et d'autodéfense, un extrêmement scabreux. Joel Schumacher filme l'injustifiable. Le droit de tuer? de Joel Schumacher avec Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey".
  18. A Time to Kill at AllMusic