Posted by: Alastair Rosie | December 23, 2012




In the adaptation of John Grisham’s book A Time To Kill, we see many mythic elements and stages in the Hero’s Journey used skilfully. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie begins with the kidnapping of ten year old Tonya Hailey by Billie Ray Cobb and Pete Willard who then rape and beat her, try to hang her but when that fails they throw her into the creek and leave her to die. Enraged by the thought that they might get off with a light sentence, her father, Carl Lee, hides in the courthouse the night before they are due to face the court and in the morning shoots them both in front of dozens of witnesses. They are both killed and Deputy Looney is also wounded and subsequently loses his leg. The rest of the film revolves around the fight to defend Carl Lee as Jake Brigance faces off against Rufus Buckley as they argue the case before Omar Noose. The case divides Canton, Mississippi when the KKK are resurrected and begin a campaign of terror against Brigance and his legal team. Ultimately Jake will have to face his own shortcomings as he sums up the case for the jury. He convinces the jury to close their eyes while he recounts the kidnap and rape, and then suggests they imagine she is white instead of black. The jury finds him not guilty by reason of insanity and he is set free.
The Ordinary World is introduced with the kidnap and rape of Tonya who in mythical terms represents the child within us all. We are drawn to the brutality and thus when her father assassinates the perpetrators there are few tears because they got what was coming in our minds. The Ordinary World of the Hailey’s is a dysfunctional world where racist whites terrorise the black community without fear of the law. When a black sheriff, Ozzie tries to arrest them for the rape he openly mocks him. Jake’s Ordinary World is also in disarray although it is more subtly put. He is behind on his bills and the practice that his Mentor, Lucien left him isn’t going so well. When he hears of the rape of Tonya it shocks him and when Carl Lee approaches him at night to ask what might happen, Jake suspects his intent and yet even when he tells Carla he doesn’t take her suggestion and warn the police, he goes to bed instead.
Thus the Ordinary World is in crisis. A young black girl has been raped by two white men who will probably get a lenient sentence. A family has been destroyed and while Jake is shocked, he isn’t prepared to disrupt his comfortable world, even if it is dysfunctional. Carl Lee accepts the call to adventure or in this case the call for revenge and Jake refuses it. When Jake witnesses the brutal slaying of Billy Ray and Pete he sees the consequences of refusing the call. He could have stopped this but he baulked at picking up a phone.
Thus we come to one of the primary motivations for Jake, recovering his honour. His other driving force is getting Carl Lee off the murder charge but all through it he is haunted by the thought he could have prevented this. Carl Lee’s initial driving force is spent, he has killed the men who raped his daughter and now his primary motivation is to be proved innocent by reason of insanity.
Thus the Call to Adventure has been accepted by the two main characters and they are facing a formidable opponent in the form of Buckley. Supremely confident, backed by the State and experienced, Jake knows he’s in for the fight of his life. Omar Noose is the other antagonist although not in such an overt way, he snipes at Jake and at times gives way to him. His purpose is to keep the focus on the defendant.
Jake’s Helpers come in the form of Rex, a self confessed, corruptible divorce lawyer and Ellen Roark, a brilliant law student who also happens to be a stunning beauty. Jake refuses Ellen’s offer of help and she tells him he’ll change his mind. He does change his mind but only after his wife and daughter flee the town. Thus Ellen becomes both Helper and Temptress. This element gives the film body and texture in a very real and human way. She comforts and attends to his wounds both physical and emotional. Thus Ellen is also a Shapeshifter, the Shapeshifter in literary terms doesn’t have to undergo a change in physical form, more often than not it’s a psychic or emotional change in perception. Jake’s Mentor, Lucien gives advice but at first refuses to come back as part of the team.
As if Buckley wasn’t a powerful enough Antagonist, Billie Ray’s brother, Freddie Lee contacts the KKK through one of his friends and after recruiting other friends to the cause they are inducted as Klansmen. They begin a campaign of terror against Brigance, which in mythic terms become Tests and Obstacles. First there are the phone calls and then someone tries to plant a bomb at his house, later on his house is burned to the ground. Freddie tries to kill him when he comes out of the court house, attacks Ethel’s husband, which results in him dying of a heart attack, and towards the end kidnaps Ellen, ties her up and leaves her for dead. The NAACP also throw up Obstacles by trying to get Carl Lee to take their lawyer, believing that Jake has no chance of winning it, and at that stage we suspect they’re probably right but Jake faces that test and overcomes it using his lawyerly skills. Buckley has Obstacles as he prosecutes the case.
Jake’s wife also throws up Obstacles because she fears for their lives and resents the fact that he has forgotten about his family and is instead chasing fame. Those are valid fears and yet he manages to overcome them only by removing them from the town. This brings his next Test, Ellen Roark, brilliant, witty and beautiful. She is Helper and Temptress, he needs her but he also wants her, she brings comfort now his wife is gone and yet he manages to get past her temptations but we can see he is faltering. Then his house is burned to the ground and we come to the Ordeal. Everything is gone, even the dog is thought to be dead. Rex hands him plane tickets and tells him to get out and at that point could you blame him? In the Ordeal his old life has died, it’s literally in ashes and yet there is a flicker of hope when the dog reappears. The dog represents the Blessing of the Gods or a Boon. It gives him strength to go further to seize the sword. In this case the sword is the truth and there are still more tests to come. He will almost lose Ellen when she is kidnapped and when he is at his wits end the night before his summation Carla reappears. I liked the footage of her coming out of the darkness. He reaches for his gun thinking it’s a threat. There is a wild storm outside and she has driven all the way in the rain to reach him. She tells him she’s sorry and she understands why he took the case. They embrace and we have what is termed the Sacred Marriage or Union with the Goddess, even though in the movie they are married. He admits he took the case to forgive himself for not calling the sheriff and it is this reminder and her love that drives him to the jailhouse to confront Carl Lee and admit his weakness. We now come to the crux of the matter when Carl Lee reveals his true colours.
He tells Jake that although he is his lawyer, he is also the enemy by virtue of his pale skin. He has been chosen because he is the enemy. It’s why he refused the NAACP because he wanted to prove that justice was colour blind. He takes the role of the Mentor and gives Jake vital information. He must make the jury see the case through his eyes. He must make the all-white jury feel Carl Lee’s pain. It is Jake’s apotheosis when he finally finds what he has been seeking all the way through the trial, the truth. He states it is incumbent on lawyers to seek the truth and to live it.
As a result of his conversation with Carl Lee, he takes the jury on a mental reenactment of the kidnap, rape and attempted murder and then turns it all around with the words, ‘now imagine she’s white.” He walks away and leaves them to consider what they might have done in similar circumstances. This is identifying with the other, the darkness in ourselves that might even do the same if we were pushed. Lucien has withdrawn from the trial and waits to see what his protege will do but at the summation he makes an appearance just to witness it.
When Carl Lee is found not guilty by reasons of insanity the KKK are arrested along with a corrupt Deputy and Carl Lee is reunited with his family. The final scene has Jake and his family arriving at Carl Lee’s place for a cookout. He explains that he thought it was “time our daughters played together.” Jake has become a more well rounded, mature human being, he is Master of Two Worlds. Carl Lee has his freedom, justice can be colour blind, Roark has discovered that while victory is sweet it can also be bitter. Lucien has triumphed because his protege has overcome the odds. It’s very much a coming of age movie because Jake is all at sea, desperate for Lucien, the father figure to rescue him. The father rightfully says no to his request and watches anxiously to see if his ‘son’ will be a man or remain a child.
I hoped you enjoyed this journey through the mythic symbolism of A Time To Kill. If you think I’ve missed some symbols or disagree with some of my assumptions feel free to comment.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: