The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.
Sandra broke out in Speed, then had decent-sized hits the following year with While You Were Sleeping and The Net, but A Time to Kill was the first movie she made knowing she was now a major star and a known personality around the world. She’s the top billed actor in a film that boasts the following powerhouse actors: Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey, Chris Cooper, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Fricker, Oliver Platt, M. Emmet Walsh, Kiefer Sutherland, Ashley Judd, and Charles S. Dutton. Wow! Director Joel Schmuacher was able to command a big cast of names for his movies in the mid-1990s — just look at the cast lists of Batman Forever and The Client — and A Time to Kill marks his best ensemble cast ever.
But Sandra, despite her being at the top of the list, isn’t the lead of A Time to Kill — she’s one of the many supporting players. Really, this is McConaughey’s movie, and this marked his breakthrough role, after a series of memorable supporting turns in Dazed and Confused and Lone Star. Sandra doesn’t do a whole lot in the first hour, but her character soon becomes important in the second half, serving a critical role in McConaughey’s legal team. The funny thing here is that Sandra, thirty-one at the time, plays a law student, studying at Old Miss — the same school Michael Oher goes to in The Blind Side — but looks a good five years older than the more experienced McConaughey. This role may have suited Sandra better a few years earlier in her career, but that’s a minor quibble.
The film gives Sandra opportunities to play both comedy and drama. Her begging to become a part of the defense team gives her a lot of room for cuteness, but as she becomes more involved in the case, she gets scenes of unexpected emotional power, especially in a small but memorable moment in a restaurant when she screams at McConaughey over his views on the death penalty. She unfortunately disappears for the finale, but she’s featured in plenty of great scenes for a good hour and a half of the movie.
Flaws and all, A Time to Kill is a fine film, one of the two or three best made from John Grisham’s novels. It’s sprawling and messy and heartfelt, a two-and-a-half-hour courtroom thriller that works as grand entertainment. It’s a shame that in all these years the film hasn’t received a proper special edition home video release. A retrospective documentary, a new commentary with Joel Schmuacher, would be desirable. The DVD of A Time to Kill was one of the first released for the format, way back in March of 1997; the disc has to be flipped halfway through the movie just to watch the second half!
A Time to Kill would be Sandra’s last big money-maker for four years, as the rest of the ’90s marked a disappointing time in her hit-and-miss career. It wouldn’t be until Christmas of 2000, when Sandra produced and starred in Miss Congeniality, that she would strike gold again. But in A Time to Kill, she shines, and gives one of her best performances in her early career.
Best Scene: Sandra lashes out at McConaughey for his position on the death penalty.
Best Line: “Good butt!”
Sandra was nominated for Best Female Performance at the MTV Movie Awards, and she won the Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Actress in a Suspense Film. Not quite the Academy Award yet, but it’s a start.
Sandra briefly dated McConaughey, and she used him as her co-star in her directorial debut Making Sandwiches.
Octavia Spencer made her film debut as Sandra’s nurse, and was also credited as Staff Assistant.
Kevin Costner, Alec Baldwin, and Brad Pitt were considered for the role of Jake Brigance, and Schumacher even offered his Batman Forever star Val Kilmer the role.