Early next week, if I’m reading the runes correctly, Matthew McConaughey should be the proud owner of an Oscar for best actor, the reward for his remarkable performance as a homophobic Aids patient in Dallas Buyers Club. Interesting then to look at a much younger McConaughey in A Time to Kill when, aged 27 and with a handful of supporting roles under his belt, he was regarded — much like the young Paul Newman, with whom he was widely compared — as just a pretty face.
Was there any sign there of the highly accomplished actor he was to become? Well, yes. He was surrounded by a bunch of top-notch performers such as Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Patrick McGoohan and, notably, Samuel L Jackson. But as this turned out to be McConaughey’s breakthrough movie, he was certainly not lost in the crowd.
Directed by Joel Schumacher and based on a John Grisham thriller, the film deals with race relations in small town Mississippi and culminates in a courtroom drama.
The action begins with two white drunks raping and severely injuring a ten-year-old black girl. The men are arrested and taken to court where the girl’s father (Jackson) shoots them dead, accidentally wounding a white deputy in the process. Jackson is charged with murder, the District Attorney (Spacey) goes for the death penalty and Jackson asks local lawyer McConaughey to defend him, whereupon mayhem breaks out.
Kiefer Sutherland, brother of one of the dead rapists, organises a Ku Klux Klan chapter in the town and issues death threats against McConaughey, who sends his family away just before his house is burned down.
Throw in a violent clash between the Klan and Jackson’s black supporters and you can see there’s plenty of nasty stuff going on.
McConaughey’s fellow lawyer Oliver Platt wants him to drop the case but her refuses, instead seeking advice from a once distinguishes but now drunken old lawyer (Donald Sutherland) and getting unsought help from rich, eager beaver young law student Sandra Bullock.
The Bullock character is a weakness in the tale; she seems to be there mostly to provide eye candy and an unnecessary sexual frisson. But the rest of it is highly engaging, the question being: what if the roles had been reversed?
What if the rapists had been black and the victim white? Would the town rednecks then be baying for the blood of the white father who avenged his daughter?
Though the legal arguments in the film probably don’t bear too close scrutiny, it remains gripping to the end and the performances are first rate. Jackson is the standout but McConaughey showed that he was one to watch out for in the future, as I expect this year’s Oscar voters will confirm.
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news