Monday, 22 February 2010

I Hate When I'm Less Than Right....

Since jumping aboard the good ship DFTV last September, I've come to change my mind about alot of things. Like, not all musicals make me want to gouge my eyes out. Soap writing actually involves a great deal of skill and is not the herpes of television I thought it was. AND I actually enjoy silent films. There's one thing, however, I never thought I'd change my mind about. I thought certain beliefs were unshakable, a universal truth akin to winter being cold and dogs not being able to look up. But yesterday, I was proven wrong when I watched a film.... that Matthew McConnaughey was actually good in.
I KNOW, RIGHT???!!!?!!? I was shocked too. Not only that, but he was good in a film I've been told repeatedly is also good, and I 'must watch'... directed by Joel Schumacher, the man who destroyed the Batman franchise... and adapted from a John Grisham courtroom novel... (really, it's a wonder I managed to sit and watch this at all)... 1996's racially charged thriller, A Time to Kill.

The Ross had told me of how awesome this movie was after my observation that Matthew McConnaughey wasn't good in anything, ever. (I tried to find clips from Seth McFarlane's Cartoon Cavalcade and Family Guy to support this, but stupid FOX banned the videos due to some copyright infringement nonsense). Lack of DVD ownership and sloooooow download speeds... I mean, umm, slooooooow wait until the shops opened and I could buy it legally, and above board... led us to Youtube. After watching a trailer and a clip of the first five minutes, I was hooked. Unfortunately, apparently you can't get whole movies on Youtube- well, you can, but only in clips of 5-10 minutes. For a movie of 149 minutes, you'd imagine this would be kind of tedious. It wasn't, funnily enough- each scene ended on a hook, which made me want to line up the next one as soon as possible. Because, like I said before, I was proven very, very wrong by this movie.

It's a quiet, lazy summer day in Canton, Mississipi, and business as usual for the county's small, close-knit black community. Suddenly, two drooling, beer-guzzling rednecks roll into town, tearing up the local shop and generally being stupid and obnoxious. At the same time, 10-year-old Tanya Hailey is walking home from the shop with the groceries. The rednecks' van swings by, they burst out and she is subjected to a brutal and sickening ordeal of kidnap, rape and attempted hanging. Her father Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L Jackson, before he was in everything) recalls a case in which four white men raped a young black girl a year before- and were acquitted. Bright eyed young attorney Jake Bergance (Matthew McConnaughey) can't help but concede, that this is in fact true. Desperate for vengeance, Carl Lee takes the law into his own hands and guns down the two rednecks at close range- in the county court house. Capital murder... In front of several a courthouse.... by an African-American in a racist, backwards, predominantly white community.... It's not looking terribly promising for poor Carl Lee. He is jailed, awaiting trial, with up and coming liberal hot-shot Bergance as his lawyer. Bergance has an ulterior motive, of sorts- he wants to prove a black man can receive a fair trial in the South. His relatively radical stance on the case infuriates the District Attorney (Kevin Spacey) and the dead boys' brother Freddie (Kiefer Sutherland), who summons up the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Jake becomes obsessed with the case, alienating his wife and young child and endangering the lives of everyone close to him: although the appearance of law student Roark (Sandra Bullock) lead him to believe he may not be as liberal as he thought.

I know, sounds heavy right? Given its themes of racism, social injustice and the justification of murder, it's certainly not an easy watch. Don't be put off though- this is an absolute belter of a movie. It touches on some hugely taboo topics, leaving us unsure where we should place our loyalties. Does Carl Lee deserve his punishment? In what circumstance can murder be justified? Can a white jury really be swayed into freeing a black man on trial for first-degree murder? Tense stuff indeed. At the same time, in the wrong hands, it could have turned into a made-for-TV sappy courtroom suckfest. Thankfully, although it may teeter close to the edge, it never does. Even when it does indulge in the odd moment of sentimentality, I was so caught up in it I was totally swept along.

The only niggle I have about this film is probably one of its big boasts. The embarrassment of talent on display means we don't get enough time with all of the supporting players. I'd liked to have seen more of Donald Sutherland's booze-soaked ex-attorney, while Kevin Spacey's role is sidelined to Token Boo-Hiss Suit Guy. Ultimately, it's police deputy Chris Cooper who throws the real spanner in the works of the jury. It's hard to say why without giving away the goods, but let's just say he has a hard time hobbling up to the stand when he's due to give evidence. And he should really have alot to say against the defendant.
It just goes to show how mistaken you can be, when you judge a book adaptation by its cover stars. This is stirring, controversial and deeply engaging movie, which questions the most basic of human morals without being heavy handed or telling us what to think. From the outset, it's an unwinnable case, destined to break up Bergance's family and leave his promising career in ruins.

The brutal nature of the original crime is so horrendous, and the film really makes you sympathise with both Jake and Carl Lee- for all their obvious differences, they're both family men with everything to lose. In the words of Jake's mentor, Lucien (Sutherland Sr):
"If you win this case, justice will prevail. If you lose this case, justice will prevail. Now that is a strange case"
This pretty much sums up the moral quandry at the heart of the film, and it was from this point that I was really hooked. It's a truly outstanding piece of cinema, which is far more complex and fraught than I've been able to convey. The final courtroom scene, where both sides make their closing arguments, is powerful and captivating, McConnaughey's final line delivering an emotional suckerpunch right to the hearts of the jury. You can find the closing argument, on its own, on Youtube. Don't do it though!! This film deserves to be watched.
In saying that, How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days is still one of the worst abominations I've ever been forced to watch. And Seth McFarlane still mostly right about Matthew McConnaughey,


  1. Don't worry Ada, this doesn't mean you are less than right. This was in he days when McConaughey was being touted as the new Paul Newman and not just for his looks. We very quickly discovered he was a one-trick pony.

  2. It's quite a fall, considering how good he is in this film compared to, say, the rest of his career which he pretty much spends shirtless.