A 10-year-old black girl is walking home from the store on a sunny day in Mississippi. A truck comes barreling down the deserted road. The occupants happen to be two drunk racists. What follows is a horrible crime against the young girl and eventually retrubution by her father against the two men. This is the premise for the movie A Time to Kill.
Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) plays the heart-broken father who avenges his daughter's brutal rape by shooting the men responsible as they are on their way to their trial. He then turns to Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), the man who defended his brother years earlier, to defend his actions in the courtroom. Helping Brigance along the way are Lucien Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland), Brigance's disbarred mentor, Harry Rex Vonner (Oliver Platt), his best friend and a shady divorce laywer, and Ellen Roark (Sandra Bullock), an ambitious law student. Together they fight for Hailey despite threatening phone calls, burning crosses on their lawns, and kidnappings. All these actions courtesy of the newly awakened Ku Klux Klan led by Freddie Cobb (Kiefer Sutherland), the brother of one of the murdered men.
From an entertainment perspective, this movie is almost faultless. It offers an engaging plot, an heart-warming story, and the characters present us with a complex interconnected web of relationships that makes us believe what we are seeing is real. McConaughey and Jackson give suprisingly believable performances and compliment each other well. The supporting cast is also impressive.
The major problem I had with this movie was that it uses sensationalist emotionally manipulative rhetoric to preach about racism (even though I feel the movie itself exploits current racial stereotypes). While this may have been the best business decision to make, I think the heart of the movie is in its theme of vigilantism. The question of whether someone who takes the "law into their own hands" should be set free, regardless of race, is basically swept under the rug. Immediately after Hailey kills the two rapists, the audience is led to assume that a white person in Hailey's position would be found innocent. I somehow find this more difficult to believe, given today's system of Justice, than Hailey being treated differently because he is black.