While it may not be statistically true — I haven't checked out the other contenders — I think of Joel Schumacher as my most-hated director. It was right around the time that A Time to Kill was released in the mid-1990s that I began to deliberately avoid Schumacher's movies, regardless of how "important" they appeared, the acclaim they received, or how much I liked the cast. I hadn't hated all of his movies at that time, but there was yet a creeping sense that his particular approach was not what I wanted from movies. This didn't stop me, unfortunately, from enduring later Schumacher releases like the dismal Nic Cage mystery 8MM and the movie that sits at the very bottom of my Flickchart as the worst movie I've ever seen, the inexplicably putrid Jim Carrey film noir The Number 23. Prior to watching A Time to Kill, I had a total of ten Joel Schumacher movies on my Flickchart, with only his 1989 remake Cousins sitting above 50% on my chart, an anomaly with all 10 averaging a measly 24%.
I think that by 1996, I was also firmly John Grisham-ed out. After three high-profile Grisham movie adaptations in as many years, and countless contrived courtroom copycats, the prospect of another hackneyed legal drama might have been enough on it own to keep me away — but, in retrospect, there should've been yet another warning sign: Akiva Goldsman. I didn't know it then, but the reliably obnoxious screenwriter would eventually be credited with several of the most asinine scripts of the 2000s, including his disgraceful Oscar-win for adapting the maddeningly terrible A Beautiful Mind.
All of this, and at almost two and a half hours long? What's not to hate? However, I'm always open to being pleasantly surprised....
Let's start with what's impressive about A Time to Kill. (This will be short.) If the movie bears substantial similarities to Grisham's 1989 novel (which I haven't read), he deserves credit for portraying, half-a-decade prior to the O.J. Simpson trial, the circus atmosphere created when opportunists attempt to frame a legal proceeding in terms of irrelevant racial politics rather than as a matter of law. Also, while movies about southern racism are typically mind-numbingly simplistic in their attempts to divide characters into binary heroes and villains, there are appealing hints of omnidirectional cynicism in A Time to Kill — the NAACP comes off poorly and a Charlottesville-like race riot dares to spread to the blame, and the movie's punch-in-the-gut to the "white crusader" trope is surprising. With better directing and writing, A Time to Kill might have presented some challenging ideas with considerable edge.
But, filtered through the dubious talents of Schumacher and Goldsman, A Time to Kill is an unspeakably dumb movie. I don't know how much of the blame falls on Grisham for a courtroom scenario so absurd that everyone who watches is at risk of being disbarred, but legal dramas can be precarious in the best of hands, and the writer-director team who snuck this "serious" drama in between Batman Forever and Batman & Robin is strictly not up to the task. A Time to Kill's framing of its central legal case is not only conceptually incoherent, at every turn it's only interested in how different facets of the crime-to-trial continuum can be turned into isolated sensationalistic tropes that mean nothing when not connected by a serious consideration of the facts within the entire process. Potentially derailing ethical issues are reduced to fleeting moments of personal guilt, and the racial issues attached this particular case are essentially non-sequiturs; while a sharp creative team capable of tackling complex incongruities might have come up with a searing indictment of how lawyers and the media fail society by transmogrifying law into soap opera, A Time to Kill lacks the intellectual probity and lightness-of-touch of a skillful satire like Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder.
Instead, A Time to Kill has all of the blunt hallmarks of a self-important all-star southern legal thriller that wants to be noticed for its social consciousness without having any ideas to contribute: there's a white savior (Matthew Mcconaughey), portentous use of gospel music, disillusioned alcoholic old-timers (Donald Sutherland and M. Emmet Walsh), a frustrated idealist (Sandra Bullock), shoehorned-in sexual tension, poorly lit government buildings, results-based endorsement of legal corruption, cartoonish racists (led by Kiefer Sutherland, Kurtwood Smith and a Ronnie Dobbs-like Nicky Katt), a little girl in her jammies asking "Momma, are you and daddy fighting?," a myopic fixation on race, a disdainful patrician judge (Patrick McGoojan), a girl-next-door-sexy-but-emotionally-reactionary wife (Ashley Judd), and gallons and gallons of sweat (mostly on Judd).
Although A Time to Kill is wall-to-wall cliches, the movie's one big surprise is that, for a production that wants to position itself as a prestigious drama, is how nakedly unambitious it is. It's rife with bewildering shortcomings of vision, attention and technique, veering from one incongruous style affect to another and failing at even such basic concepts as establishing credible sightlines between actors and the events to which they react. Even more substantial, however, is the sheer laziness of Goldsman's writing. Every line of dialog is a summary of the plot or a character's intentions, as if Goldsman simply drafted a rough outline of Grisham's story and typed character names above each paragraph. The plainly expository nature of the text is so ridiculous that one of the movie's many faux-emotional third-act crescendos — during which Judd sexily recounts her husband's well-trod plight as well as her own hackneyed inability to fathom it, followed by a prosaic explanation of her sudden revelation — that it played like a punchline to an exceedingly drawn out joke. It's at least satisfying to see that Goldsman received a Razzie nomination for "Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 Million," unfairly losing to Twister, although this indignity is complicated by the acknowledgement that A Time to Kill was also the 10th highest grossing movie of 1996.
A Time to Kill has only cemented my notion of Joel Schumacher as a filmmaker operating within the exclusively putrefied air of the worst-of-all-time. His knack for reducing conspicuously edgy subjects to inconsequential pap, while remaining wholly ignorant of his own complicity in perpetuating shallow tropes and yet yearning for maximum sanctimony — and getting progressively worse at it over three decades — makes him uniquely terrible among current popular Hollywood directors, a deficit that can't be papered over by hiring a first-rate cast and crew. Sadly, A Time to Kill didn't buoy my dismal evaluation of Schumacher's career, but drove it further down. My complete ranking of all of the Schumacher movies I've seen can found below.