A Time to Kill (1996 film)

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A Time to Kill
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoel Schumacher
Screenplay byAkiva Goldsman
Based onA Time to Kill
by John Grisham
Produced by
CinematographyPeter Menzies Jr.
Edited byWilliam Steinkamp
Music byElliot Goldenthal
Distributed byWarner 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 based on John Grisham's 1989 novel of the same name. Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, and Kevin Spacey star with Donald and Kiefer Sutherland appearing in supporting roles and Octavia Spencer in her film debut. The film received mixed reviews but was a commercial success, making $152 million worldwide.[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 1984 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 from getting groceries. The duo dump her in a nearby river after a failed attempt to hang her. Tonya survives, and Sheriff Ozzie Walls arrests the two men.

Tonya's father, Carl Lee Hailey, contacts Jake Brigance, a white lawyer who previously defended his brother Lester. Jake 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 Jake agrees to defend him.

As the rape and subsequent revenge killing gain national media attention, district attorney Rufus Buckley decides to take the case in hopes of furthering his political career. He seeks the death penalty, and presiding Judge Omar Noose denies Jake 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 takes to the streets and rallies, only to be outnumbered by counter-protesters consisting of the area's minority residents and whites who support Carl Lee's acquittal. 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 Jake, assaulting his elderly secretary and her husband, the latter of whom 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 Jake refuses to back down, the Klan then increases their attacks, including kidnapping and assaulting Ellen and burning Jake's house down.

Jake is able to discredit the state's psychiatrist, Dr. Wilbert Rodeheaver. However, Buckley, in turn, discredits Jake's psychiatrist, Dr. Willard Tyrell Bass, by revealing his prior conviction of statutory rape. Dispirited, Jake tells Carl Lee that there is little hope for an acquittal and tries to persuade him to take a plea deal that will imprison him for life but spare him execution. Carl Lee refuses this, replying that he had chosen Jake as an attorney because he is a white man and has insight into how the jury sees Carl Lee. During closing arguments, a deeply-shaken Jake tells the jury to close their eyes and listen as he describes the entire ordeal of Tonya, to which some of the jurors shed tears. In his final comment, Jake asks the jury to imagine how they would feel if she were white.

After deliberation, the jury finds Carl Lee not guilty of all charges, including, evidently, the accidental shooting of Deputy Looney. Jubilation ensues among 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 Klansman.

Sometime later, Jake 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. [3] Most location filming took place around the Madison County Courthouse and former county jail on the courthouse grounds.[4] 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).[5]

Grisham did not want to sell the film rights to the book; he sold the rights for a record $6 million.[6][7] 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.[8] Sandra Bullock also received $6 million for five weeks of work.[6]

Decades later, Samuel L. Jackson was highly critical of the film's editorial decisions, claiming big, emotional scenes for his character were removed, which "kept me from getting an Oscar."[9]


Box office[edit]

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.[2]

Critical reception[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 67% based on 58 reviews, with an average rating of 6.1/10. The critics' consensus reads: "Overlong and superficial, A Time to Kill nonetheless succeeds on the strength of its skillful craftsmanship and top-notch performances".[10] It has a score of 54 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 21 reviews.[11] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade of "A" on a scale of A+ to F.[12]

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."[13]

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."[14] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone 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."[15] Gene Siskel remarked it was "An overwrought, contrived courtroom thriller", "cornball" and concluded, "This story has been recycled out of countless better movies."[16]

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."[17]

Reaction in France[edit]

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 ?"[18][19]) so as not to shock the audience. Les Inrockuptibles described the film as "nauseating", "stinking", almost "fascist", with an "ultra-populist" script that makes one want to "vomit".[20] Libération criticized the script, calling it "extremely dirty": the movie, says the newspaper, "only militates in favour of the Black cause to legitimize, after many plot twists (the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan, courtroom trickery, all kinds of threats) the "insane" gesture of the avenging father". According to Libération, the movie "justifies the indefensible" with a "dripping sentimentalism".[21]


  • Golden Globe – Best Supporting Actor – Samuel L. Jackson – Nominated[22]
  • NAACP Image Award – Outstanding Motion Picture – Won[23]
  • NAACP Image Award – Best Supporting Actor in a film – Samuel L. Jackson – Won[23]
  • Blockbuster Entertainment Award – Favorite Actress – Suspense – Sandra Bullock – Won[24]
  • MTV Movie Award – Best Female Performance – Sandra Bullock – Nominate[25]
  • MTV Movie Award – Best Breakthrough Performance – Matthew McConaughey – Won[25]
  • Razzie Award – Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 Million – Akiva Goldsman – Nominated[26]


A Time to Kill
Soundtrack album by
Elliot Goldenthal
ReleasedAugust 20, 1996
StudioManhattan Center Studios, New York City
GenreClassical, avant-garde, modernist
ProducerMatthias 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."[27]

  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[edit]


  1. ^ a b "A Time to Kill – Box Office Data". The Numbers. Archived from the original on September 3, 2011. Retrieved August 8, 2011.
  2. ^ a b "A Time to Kill (1996)". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on July 11, 2019. Retrieved February 19, 2020.
  3. ^ Chandler, Clay (September 19, 2014). "Studios built for 'A Time to Kill' get new owner". The Clarion-Ledger. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  4. ^ "Film". Visit Mississippi. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  5. ^ "Where was A Time to Kill filmed?". Giggster. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  6. ^ a b Fleming, Michael (May 15, 1995). "Bullock ready for Grisham's 'Time'". Variety. p. 4.
  7. ^ Cagle, Jess (July 26, 1996). "A Time To Kill had a time of a shoot". EW.com. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  8. ^ Fleming, Michael (May 8, 1995). "Woody role killed". Variety. p. 4.
  9. ^ Ebiri, Bilge (July 20, 2023). "'I Can Do Things to You With My Voice' Fifty-one years of acting. Hundreds of roles. One Samuel L. Jackson". Vulture. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  10. ^ "A Time to Kill". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on August 1, 2020. Retrieved November 17, 2023.
  11. ^ "A Time to Kill". Metacritic. Archived from the original on April 18, 2023. Retrieved April 13, 2018.
  12. ^ "Cinemascore". Archived from the original on December 20, 2018.
  13. ^ Ebert, Roger (July 26, 1996). "A Time To Kill". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on February 23, 2006. Retrieved March 26, 2021.
  14. ^ Puccinelli, Anthony (August 15, 1996). "Designer Rage". Chicago Reader. Archived from the original on November 17, 2023. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  15. ^ Travers, Peter (August 8, 1996). "A Time to Kill". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on November 15, 2007. Retrieved December 12, 2013.
  16. ^ "Siskel & Ebert (1996): A Time to Kill". Siskel & Ebert. Season 10. Episode 46. July 27, 1996. ABC. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  17. ^ Jordan, Tina (February 6, 2004). "John Grisham issues judgment on ALL his novels". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on June 26, 2009. Retrieved February 19, 2020.
  18. ^ "Le Droit de tuer ?". AlloCine. Archived from the original on September 14, 2019. Retrieved April 6, 2010.
  19. ^ "A Time to Kill". Cinema Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on July 22, 2010.
  20. ^ "Le Droit de tuer ?". Les Inrocks. Archived from the original on July 4, 2010.
  21. ^ "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". Libération. November 16, 1996. Archived from the original on September 25, 2012. Retrieved April 6, 2010.
  22. ^ "Time to Kill, A". Golden Globes. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  23. ^ a b Johnson, Ted (February 10, 1997). "NAACP Takes 'Time'". Variety. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  24. ^ "UPN | 3rd Blockbuster Entertainment Awards (March 11, 1997)". YouTube. March 11, 2023. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  25. ^ a b "1997 MTV Movie Awards". MTV. Archived from the original on April 23, 2008. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  26. ^ Clifton, Anthony (March 12, 2023). "10 Best Movies Nominated For a Razzie, Ranked by Rotten Tomatoes". Collider. Retrieved February 6, 2024.
  27. ^ A Time to Kill at AllMusic

External links[edit]