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The Green Mile

Review by David Luty
Posted 10 December 1999

Directed by Frank Darabont 

Starring Tom Hanks,
David Morse,Bonnie Hunt,
Michael Duncan, James Cromwell,
Michael Jeter, Graham Greene,
Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell,
Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn,
Patricia Clarkson, Harry Dean Stanton,
Dabbs Green, and Eve Brent

Written by Frank Darabont 
based on the novel by Stephen King

In a stately Louisiana prison circa 1935, head prison guard Paul Edgcomb (Tom Hanks) lords over the institutionís death row with a kind, compassionate heart. Working alongside his faithful, equally benevolent underlings (handily played by David Morse, Barry Pepper, and Jeffrey DeMunn), Edgcomb is accustomed to dealing with the perpetrators of the worst sorts of violence, so it isnít very unusual when John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), convicted of raping and murdering two little girls, is led into his ward in chains. Whatís unusual is, first and foremost, Coffeyís hulking size, and more noticeably, a complete lack of any apparent of malice in the innocent man-child. And thatís not even mentioning the supernatural powers.

The considerable merits of a movie like The Green Mile can be measured by the fact that it may not be until you leave the theater when you realize it isnít really about anything. Or to put it more accurately, it isnít about anything other than its own resolute insistence that itís about nearly everything, or at the very least, that itís about nothing less than the most important things going, things like life, love, old age, death, the mystery of a higher power, and so forth. Those are relatively large things, it must be said, and while itís incredibly easy and dependable to pull from our culture of feelings the handy lip service that points to such facets of life as we humans know it, itís a far different story to actually make significant comment upon them. Therein lies the rub with much that constitutes middlebrow entertainment in our American culture. Storytellers have gained lots of fame and dough over the years simply by casting a sentimental eye towards such heady subject matter, without necessarily having much in the way to say. Not thereís anything wrong with that - storytellers have also made lots of audience members happy that way. The best at this game, folks like Frank Capra or Steven Spielberg, get away with it through the sheer force of their talent, their ability to find those iconic images and moments that make a fiercely strong primal connection to their audience. Director Frank Darabont clearly wishes to be included in that company, and at this point, he isnít too far removed.

But he isnít there yet, and part of the reason may be his present attachment to adapting Steven King prison stories for the screen. King has some inherent limitations as an artist - he can be an exceptional storyteller, but when he abandons his creepy sensibilities in favor of the weepy route, the over-reliance on flatly good and evil characters to drive the plot contributes creaks to the storytelling. Or to put it another way, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is always about a good man fighting a corrupting system, while The Shawshank Redemption is rarely about anything more than good men fighting evil men. At least The Shawshank Redemption attempted to say something, about the soul-deadening effects of incarceration and the soul-sustaining power of hope. If it couldnít begin to flesh out such themes without a grossly over-the-top villain commandeering the story, the beauty of its production and the strength of its performances almost rendered such foundational weaknesses invisible.

The Green Mile has even less meat on its bones, though once again, Darabont has mounted an extremely handsome production with some fine acting at its core. But the same weaknesses echo from Shawshank - a stunningly simplistic view of humans as either all good or all bad (the death row prisoners, not surprisingly, are clearly demarcated between lines of good and bad, with most, even less surprisingly, being of the angelic variety), and a villain of almost cartoonish evil dominating the story. Like any good melodramatist, which Darabont clearly is (as is King), he seems to care most about setting up these easily defined statues of good and bad, and in making sure that good triumphs. That sometimes results in an unhealthy fixation on the bad, unhealthy if youíre of the feeling that this idea - that the greater the evil, the more satisfying its toppling - is not always necessarily true. That idea is pretty much a truism in action-adventure and horror flicks (which certainly helps explain Kingís reliance on it), but in what is ostensibly a human drama, it usually helps to make sure your story is dealing with fleshed-out humanity. Darabont and King relish attention over their over-the-top villains Ė young, whippersnapper prison guard Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), an absolute sadist at heart, and the secondary antagonist, slimy madman prisoner Wild Bill (a maniacally focused Sam Rockwell), are the most vividly drawn characters of the film. The paragons of virtue, on the other hand, are woefully under-nourished, and itís a great credit to the charms of Hanks and Duncan (who are, in fact, the main characters of the story) that they register as strongly as they do.

Much has been made of the filmís destructive over-length, but pacing is not a difficulty for Darabont - the only problem with the three-hour running time is the way it more fully illuminates the storyís thinness. Darabont is accomplished enough at what he does to keep the film engrossing enough for such a prodigious length, by effectively utilizing the emotionally spurring elements of the medium to keep the audience connected - a warm spray of music (provided by pro composer Thomas Newman); the slow zoom in on a face or sympathy and/or wonder; and the deliberate but controlled way in which he allows situations and relationships, some of which are perfectly engrossing, to unfold. Heck, he even creates an involving relationship between the death row denizens and a surprisingly talented mouse. Itís less important that Darabont uses such techniques:  whatís vital is that he knows not to over-use them. The Green Mile, just as Shawshank, teeters on the edge of schmaltz throughout its length, but Darabont rarely loses his balance. Whatís ultimately disappointing about the movie is that when all is said and done, very little has been said or done. Leave it to Darabont to film one of the most gruesomely staged electric chair executions ever, and yet place it in a story that has absolutely no interest in making a statement on the practice. You have to tip your hat to Darabont, however, because itís more than likely, and even somewhat understandable, that most folks wonít care.

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