Director Joel Schumacher has given the screen version of John Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, a top-drawer cast that makes this courtroom thriller a soulful meditation on law.

When the debt-ridden lawyer Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) decides to defend Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), a black man on trial for killing the two rednecks who raped his 10-year-old daughter, he finds himself surrounded by some gifted helpers. They include his disbarred mentor (Donald Sutherland), a patient legal secretary (Brenda Fricker), a witty divorce lawyer (Oliver Platt), and an energetic law student (Sandra Bullock) from Boston.

Everything seems stacked against Brigance — the judge (Patrick McGoohan) is good friends with the politically ambitious prosecutor (Kevin Spacey), and the Ku Klux Klan arrives in the predominantly white Mississippi town to stir up trouble. At one point Jake's mentor tells him, "Your job is to find justice no matter how well she hides herself."

This highly charge courtroom drama offers a cogent look at the appalling state of race relations in the deep South and proves that imaginative lawyers occasionally can tease justice out of her hiding places.