We gave it a C
Everybody sweats in A Time to Kill. It’s not the clammy funk of you or me on a muggy day, either, but the glistening-clavicle meltdown that announces that we’re watching a Southern Courtroom Melodrama. Sweat is a key metaphor in this subgenre; it’s the image of a society’s panic as it prepares for its mint-julep hypocrisies to be judged. Where would Inherit the Wind be without those telltale rivulets?
Or To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic to which A Time to Kill owes half of its plot, three quarters of its title, and all of its good intentions? Curiously, while Mockingbird is structured as an adult’s memory of childhood, it still unfurls with immediacy. A Time to Kill, on the other hand, is current enough to echo the protests outside the O.J. Simpson courthouse, yet it’s about as compelling as a high school civics lecture after a big lunch.
The difference isn’t necessarily that Mockingbird is the more finely crafted movie — just that its director may be better matched to the material. Robert Mulligan has always been a solid journeyman whose best films (this one, 1991’s The Man in the Moon, arguably 1971’s Summer of ’42) focus, sometimes too neatly, on young people coming to grips with a confusing adult world. A Time to Kill‘s Joel Schumacher is a solid journeyman who favors noisy stories about outsiders (Falling Down, Flatliners, The Lost Boys, Batman Forever). Which man would you choose to plumb the cultural complexities of the New South?
Each movie also reckons differently with its source. Like the film Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s novel reads with the spooky clarity of an observant child. A Time to Kill‘s script (written by Akiva Goldsman) stays true to John Grisham’s emphasis on potboiler plot and characters, but while Schumacher did a dandy job bringing The Client to the screen, here he steamrollers the author’s saving grace: his tweedy earnestness.
Finally, though, the difference between the two movies comes down to the moral weight of their respective hunks. In his Oscar-winning role as Atticus Finch, Mockingbird’s small-town lawyer, Gregory Peck summed up the qualities that had kept him a star for two decades: decency, nobility, and ungodly handsomeness. Whether shooting a rabid dog with his glasses off, introducing his daughter (Mary Badham) to the town recluse (Robert Duvall), or fighting in court to save a black man (Brock Peters) wrongly charged with rape, Atticus has a weary omnipotence that made him a father figure to legions of baby boomers in the ’60s. The political and emotional parallels with then President John F. Kennedy are obvious, but it’s a testimony to Mockingbird‘s power and our nostalgia that Atticus, at least, still stands tall.
So we know Atticus Finch — and Jake Brigance, sir, is no Atticus Finch. The hero of A Time to Kill is also a small-town lawyer and the father of a little girl, about whom he greatly agonizes when taking the case of a black man (Samuel L. Jackson) who has killed the redneck rapists of his own daughter. And newcomer Matthew McConaughey is one fine-acting, good-looking do-gooder as Brigance. But there’s the problem: McConaughey is a newcomer, with none of the associative affections we bring to a star we already know. A Time to Kill is about Brigance’s winning over a closed-minded community through his moral authority, but the star is too young, too fresh, to win us over yet.
Worse, where Mockingbird delivered details of rural life that felt comparatively honest, A Time to Kill is a Hollywood false front all the way, from Jake’s wife (Ashley Judd) staining the floor in her lingerie to the brilliant law student (Sandra Bullock, engaging as always) who helps Jake out gratis to the alky legal mentor (Donald Sutherland) who gets it together just in time for the big summation. The many star turns and propulsive pacing were enough to make A Time to Kill a diverting summer pleasure on the big screen, but shrunk down on video, it’s just another TV movie. For all its perspiration, the movie never sweats.
A Time to Kill: C
To Kill a Mockingbird: A-