½/**** Image C+ Sound C+
starring Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Sam Shepard, John Heard
screenplay by Alan J. Pakula, based on the novel by John Grisham
directed by Alan J. Pakula
A TIME TO KILL
½*/**** Image B+ Sound B+
starring Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Matthew McConaughey, Donald Sutherland
screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by John Grisham
directed by Joel Schumacher
***/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras B
starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, John Mahoney, Edward Norton
screenplay by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman, based on the novel by William Diehl
directed by Gregory Hoblit
by Walter Chaw Hand-in-hand with the digital revolution of the 1990s is this backlash against the same as technical paranoia pictures like The Net and Hackers cohabit multiplexes with an epidemic of John Grisham adaptations. Starting with The Firm in 1993 and running through to The Client (1994), The Pelican Brief (1995), A Time to Kill and The Chamber (1996), The Rainmaker (1997), and The Gingerbread Man (1998), these pictures share a deep interest in not just the low-grade hackery of Grisham's declarative-prose style, but also super-secret societies in the halls of power. Thus was limply resurrected the paranoid New American Cinema. It was different this time around because the ways our realities were being manipulated by the popular culture and mass media were no longer a product of a governmental conspiracy, but of a perceptual mutation.* It's not about not trusting the government (nobody has trusted the government since 1972)--it's about not trusting the medium of film itself. Not surprisingly, directors who carved out their reputations in the Seventies--like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, and Alan J. Pakula--jumped on board the Grisham train, finding familiar ground in his gallery of paper-based heroes (lawyers, judges, newspapermen) and perhaps thinking they'd bought a ticket back to relevance when in fact they were working in an odd parallel phenomenon that would fail almost entirely to have any kind of relevance or longevity. Instead of producing classics, these legends were excavating mines they'd already exhausted three administrations ago.
When two Supreme Court justices are killed on the same night by ace assassin (and inspiration for the Mark Strong-portrayed hitman from Revolver) Khamel (Stanley Tucci), plucky law student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) takes it upon herself to pen the titular brief containing her theory as to who's behind the murders. Unfortunately for her and her lover, law professor Callahan (Sam Shepard), her brief gets passed around the FBI, thus putting her in the crosshairs of Khamel and a vast conspiracy that leads all the way up to (wait for it) the White House. It's two hours of blather, endless and circular, and the dialogue is almost exclusively expository. It's dusty and creaky after fourteen years on the shelf, dealing with drilling wetlands and the like--but the real question is how Darby's theories could possibly be so privileged when, truth be known, if two Supreme Court Justices were offed in quick succession, everybody and their sister would be coming to the same broad conclusions this not-especially-bright law student reached.Roberts, for her part, is turned all the way down. She whispers her lines, looks up coyly from beneath her ostrich lashes, curls up on couches in giant sweaters, and confesses everything she knows to ace investigative reporter Gray Grantham (African-American actor--this is relevant--Denzel Washington), the one person in this whole dirty business she can trust. For his part, the best poor Pakula can muster in terms of tension is a protracted taxi chase between two men in suits, over the course of which the camera lingers on our national monuments. It's a mess, in other words--a giant, crushingly boring mess stinking of howling plot contrivances like the random student who flags Grantham down to pass on a key bit of information for no discernible reason. Is the implication that, because he's black, this student has some sort of affinity for the struggles of a brother-man? That's certainly the foundation of Grantham's relationship with the elderly black janitor who cleans the Oval Office. If only The Pelican Brief were purposefully controversial.
The problem is that it's so desperate to manufacture meaning that it not only fails to notice promising avenues of exploration--it doesn't realize until far too late that the well it's tapping has long run dry. That weird noise you hear is what a straw makes when it's slurping against the bottom. The allure of Grisham is that he's fake-complicated: the conspiracies he postulates appear twisty; the lock-step click-clack of dominoes falling one after another affects the illusion of discovery. Pakula had better luck with his 1990 adaptation of a Scott Turow novel, Presumed Innocent, which seemed more an indictment of the previous decade's facility with morality than these later attempts at grasping the fascination we developed as a culture in 1994 for the O.J. Simpson trial. I'd offer that it wasn't the trial but the televisual representation of the same that fascinated us--that, like lesbian porn for heterosexuals, the reality of two women uninterested in their voyeur is roughly as compelling as another murder trial in California. But make it a fantasy of celebrity and, in O.J.'s case, miscegenation, sexual jealousy, retribution, and so on... It wasn't about the trial, man, it was about the way narrate history; when the jury came back with exactly the wrong conclusion, it served to confirm that nothing that you see has anything to do with what's real. No accident that '94 sported flicks like Forrest Gump, True Lies, Quiz Show, In The Mouth of Madness, Disclosure, Cemetery Man, and Natural Born Killers--all marking this turn towards a collective perceptual reorganization around an idea that the fundamental way we tell each other stories is irrevocably corrupt and completely corruptible. The Pelican Brief, alas, is garbage interested in the wrong piece of a two-piece puzzle.
Worse, while much is made of the way that Darby is constantly touching her hands to Grantham's, the taboo of their never-consummated love is robbed of any tension because we know of Washington's no-white-women contract clause, reducing their relationship to a weird father/daughter one with dominant black man and submissive white woman archetypes the unfortunate fallout. James Horner contributes another of his patented full-on anal-rape scores that vaingloriously establishes the journalist as the white knight and the Grantham-Darby relationship as one of the most romantic, unrequited love stories of all time. Easy to detect in hindsight, I'd argue, too, that Roberts may be a creature of a very particular cultural moment, and that whatever effervescence made her a megastar was not simply fleeting, but possibly fled altogether on review. The difference between Roberts and Audrey Hepburn--and there's less difference than one might have initially thought--is that if neither is an actress, Hepburn is still a movie star.
Proof that someone else watching The Pelican Brief decided that its great unplumbed racial subplots would be worth a Grisham picture of their own, enter the patently offensive A Time To Kill, underscoring its liberal screed by opening with caricatures of rednecks at war with caricatures of black people: basketball hoops on the one side, Confederate flags on the other; front-yard barbecues, late-night cross-burnings; marble halls of justice, raucous Baptist churches; Kevin Spacey's DA summation on the one side all superego, Matthew McConaughey's tear-jerking monologue on the other all soul. Of course it's Joel Schumacher, coming back to Grisham land--the meat in his Batman sandwich, if you will--after 1994's The Client to lend his unique populist sheen to the racial divide in the Deep South. Only a screenplay by Akiva Goldsman could make things worse--and lo and behold, speak of the devil and Old Scratch appears.
McConaughey is green defense attorney Jake, who, because of honour or somefuck, decides to defend a black man, Carl Lee (Samuel L. Jackson), charged with double homicide because the sons of the Earth he mowed down happen to have confessed to raping and mutilating Carl Lee's ten-year-old daughter. If more motive were needed, the little girl is now incapable of having her own children in about five years or so, and a resurgent Klan led by vengeful Freddie (Kiefer Sutherland) is menacing Jake's very own adorable moppet (and hot wife (Ashley Judd)). Jake has a Girl Friday (Sandra Bullock) who surfaces every few scenes to pluck it up and a sleazy sidekick (Oliver Platt) with the same function. Not to mention, he has a mentor (Donald Sutherland), some in-laws, and one hell of an accent. Critics at the time observed that McConaughey in this role reminded them of Paul Newman and Marlon Brando; pretty much, he reminds me of McConaughey in a cheap suit and a cheaper Mississippi drawl, though he's completely, utterly natural--probably because he lacks the native, animal sense to realize he's on camera. You could call it "effortless" if you're so inclined, but his Jake, to me, all smirks and great hair like every character McConaughey plays, is best described as unctuous. A literal white knight, he's the empty vesicle for not quite enough white guilt to prevent A Time To Kill from being another movie that invests the fate of black folks in an unctuous cracker. Its real usefulness to me is that, as a caricature of To Kill a Mockingbird, it highlights every ugly crevice of Robert Mulligan's revered Civil Rights melodrama in sharp, broad terms with less contemporary pardon because this tiny opera was conjured and perpetrated in the mid-Nineties rather than the mid-Sixties.
Jake conjures up an insanity plea on behalf of his client, then, during his closing soliloquy, brings the jury box to tears with his plangent appeal to imagine the desecration of this little girl. The bad writing is one thing (and somewhat expected given that this is Goldsman adaptating Grisham), but it's here that an ignorant movie becomes malignant in almost precisely the same way as taking Communion ought to be for a Christian. You're doing what now? And why? And for whom? This deeply exploitive moment is used as proof that there can be no justice for a black person in the South because it's suggested that the horrific images Jake conjures for his soapbox would be ineffectual unless the white jurors were to imagine a white victim. He doesn't take the extra step to suggest that they also imagine that the new perps are black men and that a white man exacting vigilante justice on said perps would be viewed by them as heroes for flipping the bird to the American legal system. It should dawn at this point that the redneck gumps who do the dirty deed are flying the Confederate flag in their pickup for probably the same bird-flipping reasons. It should dawn for anyone not Grisham or Goldsman that the real conversation in the film ought to have started, not ended, at this juncture. No matter, as all threads in A Time To Kill are neatly tied up by the jury's verdict. Schumacher has the audacity to finish it off with a bucolic barbecue at which Jake drawls, "Well, I thought our girls should play together!" Never mind that it's unlikely the Klan will be soothed by the gavel. Never mind the little girl with the ruptured uterus.
Needless to say, Spacey as the rival DA is splendid, as he always was before American Beauty made him a self-styled Celluloid Christ. In truth, there's not a bad apple in the bunch, making it harder to take when the end-product is bathetic bullshit. It's straw-man theatre--who wouldn't argue against child-rape, or for a father's right to defend his kid? Issues of racism in the United States and the frustrations of our legal system deserve a more considered conversation than this one. Showing a white guy in a yellowing wife-beater with a mullet and a stooge is every bit as offensive as the children of the earth image of black people, living in shacks, standing by stoic with a single tear streaking down their cheeks as they recognize the injustice of their world. The blacks teach the whites valuable lessons, but it's the whites who save the blacks--sometimes from themselves, as Grisham, Schumacher, and Goldsman (not a black guy among them) toss in some avaricious ACLU/NAACP lackeys hungry for their ring in the media circus. All one need know is that A Time to Kill, armed with its foregone conclusions and telegraphed epiphanies, pursues the insanity plea when one of the characters observes that a scant one-percent of such cases are ever argued successfully.
The insanity plea is likewise at the centre of Gregory Hoblit's same-year adaptation of William Diehl's Primal Fear, speaking to synchronicity, sure, but moreover to the reality of zeitgeist as more than a metaphysical construct. What is it in the air of 1996 that had the Hollywood machine interested in making movies from courtroom novels structured around pleas of insanity? The answer thirteen years down the road seems obvious, although the Lewinsky scandal in Bill's White House didn't surface until 1998. Weird, right? The surprise is that Primal Fear holds up extremely well in the rearview, suggesting that it adheres to the feverish existentialism attached to the end of our last millennium more closely than it does to the manic courtroom antics of the decade's other, secondary obsession. Richard Gere, always watchable (and he plays competence well), is arrogant defense attorney Vail, fallen from grace from the DA's office, who've set ex-flame Janet (Laura Linney) opposite him in a trial of the century involving disturbed altar boy Aaron (Edward Norton, in his film debut). Evidently Aaron killed the Catholic Archbishop for forcing him to shoot amateur porn in his office, and it's up to Vail to pro bono the lad into a nut hatch instead of the big house. The usual stuff, certainly, yet the performances are uniformly excellent on into a weary third act, with a second viewing revealing that Norton is actually better knowing the twist. (The same might be said of Spacey's similar turn in The Usual Suspects.) In dealing with land-ownership issues and corruption in every facet of local government, it presages the following year's L.A. Confidential. And in providing numerous opportunities for Norton to carve out a place for himself as the everyman in the last part of the decade, the picture proves prescient for the direction of American film until 9/11 derailed its headlong gallop at actualization.
It's too bad that so much screentime is devoted to trips to the judge's (Alfre Woodard) chamber, where Vail is dressed down, and to interludes between Vail and Janet seemingly beyond the grasp of an essentially phallocentric tale. When it's among men, however, as in an early scene where Vail visits a mobster and a city alderman to secure testimony, or another where he rejects the sanctimony of former boss DA Shaughnessy (John Mahoney) over Chinese food, Primal Fear lives up to its title's promise to be about the wet places in the male's lizard brain. Not inconsequential that the glimpses of self-shot porn are titillating and directorial: Television-procedural veteran Hoblit understands the seductive power of voyeurism--and in the middle of a cinematic period that questions history, it's telling that the trial hinges on a videotape procured from the room of a man mutilated by having his eyes torn out as he's reaching for his glasses. Smoothly edited, tautly paced, it's less a technical piece than a surprisingly cerebral play revolving around the interactions of smart people doing their best to squelch that last iota of empathy squirming around in them--the ultimate undoing of at least one major character. It's a movie about a fallen world, a truer throwback in that way to the ethic of the New American Cinema than the simple-minded conservatism of the Grishams, its heroes only heroes because they believe in order and not because they're capable of order's championing or restoration. When Vail rolls the cosmic dice and comes up sevens, it only underscores the aphorism that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
The Pelican Brief and A Time To Kill trundle onto Blu-ray in skeletal releases from Warner that scrimp on both special features and technical scrubbing. While the 2.35:1, 1080p rendering of The Pelican Brief is a marked improvement over its prehistoric DVD transfer, it's notably soft and muddy. Pakula's weakness for muted colour schemes is aggravated by a high "Vaseline" factor as grain is erased and "noise" disastrously reduced. This isn't to say that there's no grain, but the image looks like it's been pulled through a condom. Likely not helping is the decision to pack the film onto a single-layer disc. (Running a mere 9 minutes longer, A Time To Kill is spread out over a BD-50.) The accompanying 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio strains to use the split-surrounds, relegating a good 90% of the action to the front and centre channels. The lone special feature is a standard definition trailer that today buggers the imagination as to how it could inspire anyone to buy a ticket.
A Time To Kill sports a superior 2.40:1, 1080p presentation that takes Schumacher's pretentious sepia tint and pulls out every slick of sweat on every forehead of every Southerner in the whole damned thing. It's gorgeous, truth be told, with the overbearing DVNR of The Pelican Brief arguably more justifiable in a movie from the director of the film version of The Phantom of the Opera musical, who would expect nothing less than this deeply-affected perfection. I could just as well be referring to the picture's themes, but browns are brown and blacks are sturdy. The attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is not too shabby, either, for although the flick is a courtroom yakker, it's got more than its share of gunfire and explosions. A late-film crowd scene wherein an angry mob of protesters has assembled roars in the rear speakers. Impressive. Another trailer (for A Time To Kill) marks the platter's sole extra.
Primal Fear docks on the format from Paramount in a smooth, bright 1.85:1, 1080p video transfer that unfortunately brings the use of opticals into stark relief. The credits-through-murder sequence is shot through with harsh grain and hazy colour differentiation, while Norton's later psychiatric sessions with Frances McDormand are crystal clear and brilliant. Black is similarly uneven, with some night scenes diffuse and others pitch. Hard to get a handle on it--and too much, surely, to ascribe its ambiguity to design meant to mirror the film's own twistiness. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is exceptional, however, with booming effects from every channel reproduced with clarity and logic. The centrepiece extra is a feature-length yakker reuniting Hoblit, co-screenwriter Ann Biderman (who also penned the underrated Copycat--her ticket to Primal Fear, apparently), producers Gary Lucchesi and Hawk Koch, and, the real star of the show, casting director Deb Aquila. Aquila has the least to say of any of the principals--she'll receive a bigger showcase in the video-based supplements. Here, it's Hoblit and Biderman going on at length about the difficulties of production, most of them occurring before principal photography as the powers that be fretted over every casting decision to the point of distraction. Leonardo DiCaprio is mentioned once or twice as the primary choice for the film's pivotal role, his defection necessitating an extensive talent search. I like that Hoblit can only remember Gere starring in Pretty Woman prior to Primal Fear (he refers to it as "Garry's film") and says something along the lines of Gere having taken himself out of the movie business by choice until returning triumphantly for Primal Fear. It's funny because Gere worked constantly, anchoring seven films in the six intervening years. For their part, Lucchesi and Koch try to remember the title of the Arthur pic with Gere as Lancelot. It speaks to the quality of Gere's choices in this period, I fear.
More Gere reverie in "Primal Fear: Star Witness" (18 mins.) as Edward Norton, humble and appealing, remembers the man showing up on set with long hair after one of his pilgrimages to the near East only to reappear, transformed, a few days later at the start of filming. Norton... Listen, I don't like him lately, don't like anything he's done post-1999 except The 25th Hour--which I only really liked in retrospect. But herein, Norton comes off as extremely unaffected and genuinely grateful for this shot at the big time. Aquila says that 2000 young men--every actor in the business within a certain age bracket--tried out for the part of Aaron and that they were on the verge of giving up until Norton walked through the door. She describes a neck-and-neck to the end for the role, though we're never told who the other finalist was. (According to rumour it was Matt Damon.-Ed.) In any event, a nice featurette that doesn't outstay its welcome.
"Primal Fear: The Final Verdict" (18 mins., HD) is a more conventional making-of in which Hoblit, his producers, and Norton and Linney recap the genesis of the production and the trepidation with which the studio approached the material, leading to a tight shooting schedule and budgetary concerns. Hoblit's accomplishment in making a tabloid-effective bit of schmutz that doesn't entirely sacrifice some good thinking justifies in part my diehard affection for his hopelessly sentimental Frequency. Finally, "Psychology of Guilt" (14 mins., HD) brings in all manner of Justices and forensic doctors to talk about the insanity plea and how it's basically a complete fiction. Brief discussion ensues around John Hinckley, Jr. and the Hillside Strangler (with interesting archival footage of Ken Bianchi lapsing into his aggressive "Steve" alter ego), while one expert decries Primal Fear for its glorification of the defense even though the film itself already seems a pretty firm condemnation of it. The picture's theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. Originally published: April 1, 2009.