NEW YORK — "A Time to Kill," based on the best-selling novel by John Grisham, begins with an act of violence so blunt and brutal that it will single-handedly put the movie off limits for many moviegoers.
It's regrettable that the filmmakers couldn't find a more subtle way to grab our attention, and that they return to mayhem more than once during their story. Still, this might be one of the rare occasions when explicit violence is at least partially called for by the plot and theme of the picture. These focus on the question of revenge - and the limits of revenge, if any, when the action that prompted it goes beyond any conceivable definition of civilized behavior.
The story begins in a small Mississippi town where a couple of white troublemakers take it into their heads to abduct and rape a young black girl, simply because she's walking down a lonely stretch of road as they barrel along in their pickup truck one day.
As stupid as they are evil, the criminals are promptly caught, imprisoned, and scheduled for trial. But the victim's father is savvy enough to know that a couple of white guys may get off lightly when judged by a jury of their peers. Emboldened by his rage, he sneaks into the local courthouse and seizes an opportunity to gun them down. Then he takes their place in jail - hoping a smart lawyer will be able to deliver an acquittal, even in a community where emotions run high and race relations leave a lot to be desired.
Enter the hero of the tale, a white attorney who agrees to defend him despite the difficulties he knows it will bring. And there are even more of these than expected, all springing from today's troubled racial climate. On one hand, a national civil rights organization decides its agenda would be better served if its hand-picked lawyer handled this high-profile case. On the other, the area's Ku Klux Klan chapter is rejuvenated by racists who crawl from under the county's rocks in distressingly large numbers.
Our hero's task is to defend his client while pacifying the African-American community, keeping the Klanners at bay, and protecting his own family from threats and injury. Helping him is a frivolous divorce lawyer who shares his office, a grizzled old mentor with a drinking problem, and an eager law student who wants to make her name with a challenging case.
"A Time to Kill" is a complicated story with lots of characters, so it's not surprising that it gets talky at times, working too hard to clarify the plot and move the action along. As if to compensate for this, the filmmakers juice up many scenes with shamelessly manipulative devices like quick editing, pushy camera work, and gooey background music. These keep the picture emotionally involving even when your brain knows it's gotten repetitious, redundant, or (occasionally) repugnant.
What makes the movie more interesting than most summertime releases is its effort to make a progressive statement about the ill effects of racism. Much of the story rings loud warning bells about the prevalence and destructiveness of present-day bigotry, and even though the pivotal character is a confessed killer, the film suggests that his grief may justify his vengeance.
In the end, though, "A Time to Kill" is less constructive than it would have been if it followed its own logic a few additional steps. The movie recognizes that bias and bigotry are awful things, and this message is underscored when Martin Luther King Jr.'s name is mentioned in an early scene. Yet the filmmakers haven't absorbed King's deepest and most resonant insight, which is that the specific evils of racism spring from the broader evils of violence and hatred themselves.
"A Time to Kill" sees itself as enlightened because it sides with an oppressed minority - represented by the man who avenges his daughter's rape - against thuggish, self-righteous enemies. But it would be far richer if it realized that ill will of all kinds is our common foe and that King was right to preach nonviolence as the solution to hatred, since violence will ultimately beget more of the same. The final scene, showing two characters taking individual steps toward better racial understanding, is more sentimentally cloying than socially helpful; it could actually work against the picture's effectiveness by fostering a feel-good notion that things aren't really as bad as the story has been suggesting.
As dramatic entertainment, "A Time to Kill" gets help from some magnetic performances. Matthew McConaughey, already a cult favorite for pictures like "Dazed and Confused" and "Lone Star," takes a big step toward stardom with his likable portrayal of the lawyer. The gifted Samuel L. Jackson does wonders with his small but central role as the vengeful father. Sandra Bullock plays the law student with her usual energy and amiability.
The sensational supporting cast includes Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Oliver Platt, and Ashley Judd. Joel Schumacher directed the drama from Akiva Goldsman's screenplay.
*'A Time to Kill' has an R rating. It contains scenes of horrifying violence, explicit dialogue about violence, foul language, and a lot of drinking.