Southern Discomfort 

Grisham's Time runs backward

Grisham's Time runs backward

Those of us who are from the South tend to be at once proud and protective of our homeland—as though it were a favorite old book that we’ve loaned out to a friend and are afraid will be found maudlin, or even inappropriate. Our sensitivity has gotten rawer over time, inflamed by Hollywood and its standard portrait of the South as a backwoods confederation, populated by racist whites and simpleminded (albeit noble) blacks. It’s the dimness of the picture that’s most frustrating. Hiding behind one easy-to-understand, black-and-white take on the South, Hollywood filmmakers miss a far more complicated and interesting story.

The new film A Time to Kill is set in the Hollywood South, though it’s based on a popular novel by a Southern writer, John Grisham. Grisham’s book sets out to update the dilemma posed by Harper Lee in her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird: Can a black man receive justice in a prejudiced society? Only Grisham made the hot button all the warmer, stirring in the issue of revenge killing in his story of a black logger who murders two good ol’ boys after they rape his 10-year-old daughter.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the accused killer in the film version; the charismatic young actor Matthew McConaughey plays his defense attorney. Aiding McConaughey in his cause is Oliver Platt as a ne’er-do-well divorce lawyer, Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker as an aging legal secretary, and Sandra Bullock as a wealthy Yankee law student (with whom McConaughey might be romantically entangled, were it not for his wife, Ashley Judd). The roadblocks to freedom are legion, namely Patrick MacGoohan as a conservative judge, Oscar winner Kevin Spacey as a slick D.A., Kurtwood Smith as a Grand Dragon for the local Klan, and Kiefer Sutherland as a budding Klan sympathizer. Also, there’s Charles S. Dutton as a local sheriff, Chris Cooper as his deputy, Anthony Heald and M. Emmett Walsh as competing psychiatrists, and Donald Sutherland as a drunken old liberal shyster.

If you find yourself wondering how all these characters fit into the story, the answer is “awkwardly.” The overstuffing probably stems from John Grisham’s direct involvement as producer of the film; writers tend to hate cutting scenes from their work, even if what’s vital to a novel is poison to a movie. The logjam of characters in A Time to Kill serves only to reiterate information. In at least four scenes, a character wonders if a man should take the law into his own hands; three scenes feature the phrase “what if that was your daughter?”; and just about every scene has a haughty Caucasian grumbling about uppity Negroes.

The movie reaches its lowest point when Sandra Bullock is stripped and tied to a tree by the Klan. The scene makes no point that hasn’t been made 20 times before; it exists solely to titillate the audience with the sight of America’s top female star under sexual assault. And, of course, it hammers home once more the idea that the South is crawling with violent bigots. (During the screening I saw, a woman behind me asked her date, “What year is this set?” He replied, “I think it’s the ’70s.”)

The ace up the movie’s sleeve is Matthew McConaughey, an actual Southerner (Texan, to be exact), who gives a A Time to Kill something approximating a soul. Watching McConaughey crinkle his blue eyes, give his tight little smile, and deliver his lines in that mellow, mellifluous drawl, one can’t help but imagine how audiences in 1962 felt seeing Paul Newman light up the screen in Hud. McConaughey is comfortable in his role; he emerges placidly from the noise and haste.

Less placid is the man in charge of this bitter brew—director Joel Schumacher, here working in full Falling Down mode. He trains the camera on the screaming courthouse spectators and keeps the volume so high that it drowns out what ambiguity remained in Grisham’s novel. As a book, A Time to Kill may have been far removed from the subtle honesty of To Kill a Mockingbird, but it’s Invisible Man compared to this. The movie’s emphasis on broad generalizations and cartoon villains makes the real evil of racism seem as remote as the aliens in Independence Day.

Which is unfortunate, because in truth, the South of the 1990s has more complex and fascinating racial problems than ever. In his book, Grisham makes a point worth exploring: that many bigoted Southern whites, no longer supported by institutional racism, have taken to exploiting the legal system and crying that society won’t give them a fair shake anymore. The pathetic wrongheadedness of this belief would seem natural for drama, but A Time to Kill hasn’t the guts to let its villains articulate their gripes. As far as the movie is concerned, the slack-jawed rednecks who gather around the courtroom are merely asserting their constitutional right to rape young girls.

It’s this kind of narrow perspective—one might say “bigotry”—that led the London Times, in its critique of the poignant Olympic opening ceremonies in Atlanta, to talk about Southern whites “putting on white robes and burning black churches,” as though all the people involved in the ceremony were of one evil mind. As though the South were a hive colony without compassion, contradiction, or the capacity for change.

Not that the London press is to be blamed for its myopic view of the South. Lacking thorough journalistic inquiry, their untrained eyes go where they’re led, to what America’s own images teach them to see. And there, pointing the way, are Hollywood and Joel Schumacher, waving their arms and whistling “Dixie.”—Noel Murray

A hale horseman

In most cases, seeing the movie version of a book before you’ve read it spoils the pleasure of reading the book. The pleasure you get from the movie of The Horseman on the Roof, however, is so different from that of Jean Giono’s novel that you’re safe in seeing the movie first. First published in 1951, Giono’s novel tells of a young Italian officer, Angelo, making a perilous journey back to his homeland through a cholera-ridden Provence in 1832. Giono’s writing is so vivid that the descriptions of heat, putrefaction, and stifling air are uncomfortably specific. Equally vivid, though, is the book’s sense of romance and adventure, and the author’s lusty affection for gallantry and generosity, be they in the heart of a noble or the sweat of a peasant.

Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s film of The Horseman on the Roof captures enough of the novel’s swashbuckling spirit—not to mention enough breathtaking views of the Provençal scenery—to merit a look. But it’s a superficial reading of Giono’s gripping ethical odyssey, in which a young man must rely on his own innate scruples in situations that test his character, even when reason dictates abandonment of his fellow man. In the book, Angelo’s relentless self-criticism makes him the most engaging kind of hero: the kind who’s all the more admirable for not admiring himself. It makes his brashness and vanity lovably human.

The movie’s Angelo, Olivier Martinez, seems shallow and humorless compared to the book’s rambunctious fellow, who wields a sword and a sharp tongue with equal vigor. But Martinez looks dashing and agile, with an elegant pout, and he has great chemistry with Juliette Binoche, who plays the tough, aristocratic woman Angelo accompanies and protects on his journey. Shorn of its introspection and its quirky particulars, The Horseman on the Roof becomes a lavish historical romance, staged with little depth, but with aplomb and attention to period detail. It’s handsome and entertaining, and it no more ruins your appetite for Giono’s novel than a picture of a cake ruins your appetite for cake.—Jim Ridley

The horror, the horror

After a clever, creepy opening, The Frighteners sets some kind of land speed record for going to hell. The fun stops about the moment Michael J. Fox appears as a phony psychic investigator, a con man who’s secretly in league with some spooks in a small town plagued by inexplicable deaths. Don’t blame Fox, who’s as charming and as unshowily deft as ever. Blame self-indulgent direction, along with a ragged script that hashes together horror, insipid sentiment, and comic relief so painfully, wheezingly unfunny that from moment to agonizing moment you can feel your sinuses clogging.

What’s doubly exasperating about The Frighteners is that it isn’t the work of untalented people. The director and coauthor, Peter Jackson, made last year’s remarkable Heavenly Creatures, and in his native New Zealand he made a string of inventive gross-out horror flicks, any one of which is better than The Frighteners.

Jackson continues to improve as a technician: If you have the wherewithal to tough out an hour of utter fiasco, there’s a genuinely chilling sequence, a hospital-massacre flashback staged with grisly ingenuity. Even then, there’s something distasteful about the way the director inserts a ghastly serial killing (and real-life suffering) into a slapstick spookshow, as if he were making The Silence of the Ghostbusters.

But bad taste—the name, not coincidentally, of Jackson’s first film—is simply what you notice when you aren’t having fun, and the appalling supporting performances, cumbersome special effects, and infuriating lapses in logic ruin everything. (Can ghosts move matter or not? It’s a question you should answer before you make a ghost movie.) Jackson’s staging is extremely stylish, with effective use of slow motion, different film stocks, and tilted angles, but he overdoes the Caligari camerawork so much you’d swear the cinematographers were being paid by the zoom. If you took the scenes that work out of The Frighteners, you’d have a trim, macabre, and scary little horror movie. But it would only be 15 minutes long.—Jim Ridley

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