- Directed by: Frank Darabont.
- Written by: Frank Darabont. Based on The Green Mile by Stephen King.
- Starring: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, Doug Hutchison, David Morse, Sam Rockwell, Michael Jeter, James Cromwell, Barry Pepper, Patricia Clarkson, Bonnie Hunt, Dabbs Greer, Eve Brent, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Sinise, Graham Greene, Jeffrey DeMunn, Bill McKinney.
- Rated: R.
The Green Mile comes from Frank Darabont and Stephen King, the filmmaker and author who brought us the definitive prison film, The Shawshank Redemption. The two films couldn’t be less alike. Darabont inhabits The Shawshank Redemption with a dark, gothic aura and focuses on life turned upside down behind prison walls. The Green Mile focuses not on prison inmates but on their guards. Indeed, we are only introduced to four inmates in the latter, and one of them is so broad and repulsive a caricature that we can hardly believe them. Darabont has not so much as painted a distinctive time and place but sketched one. What’s more, we’re acutely aware that the story of the bland prison guards are far less interesting than those they must guard.
It is possible a great film about prison guards exists or could exist. But these characters aren’t given any dimension or attributes beyond the innate goodness all but one of them possesses. I complained of another Tom Hanks film, Apollo 13, that the characters were given a single defining attribute to return to in moments of cheap character “development”. Here we barely get that. Hanks is Paul, a guard on death row, who’s played as an old man by Dabbs Greer. The Green Mile utilizes a Titanic-style “an old person tells the story of their life or the most important events of their life while on death’s door” format. It’s rather unnecessary and the trope suffers from overuse, but I digress. Hanks brings his signature warmth to Paul, but his stalwart coworkers, as played by David Morse, Barry Pepper, and Bill McKinney, are limp and tasteless. James Cromwell, as the warden, fares a little better. But then again, he’s James Cromwell.
There is one other guard, the sadistic Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), who would’ve been dismissed for what can only be described as cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners if not for the fondness of the governor’s wife, who happens to be Percy’s aunt. Despite Hutchison’s game performance, he, like the other characters, are plagued by an over the top Southern twang. Evidently Darabont thought everything would be funnier and more profound if all of the characters had fake, knowingly Southern accents.
Yes, I said ‘funny’. Much of The Green Mile's first hour is filled with the interactions between guards and prisoners, often stretched out and played for laughs. In these scenes the otherwise passable score becomes stilted in its attempt to be jaunty and cheerful. The muted halls of The Shawshank Redemption, too, are here replaced with a death row so bright that I wondered whether the director got his start in commercials. Thankfully, this humor and good cheer is largely abandoned as the film wears on, but one of the inmates is intended for comic relief but is later revealed to have committed unspeakable acts.
These inmates are much more interesting than their captors. Graham Greene has a small role in the beginning of the film as a quiet, wistful murderer. Michael Jeter gives us a character so sad and destitute but polite and friendly towards the guards that we are sorry when we see him go. And see him go we must. The film contains numerous executions, one so gruesome we want to close our eyes away from the screen but find we cannot. There are two other inmates of great consequence. Wild Bill (Sam Rockwell) is a yee-hawing loose cannon who delights the guards with his wily tactics, overacting, and urine, among other such weapons. Rockwell is a gifted actor, but he’s a nauseating caricature.
The film’s key character is John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan). He’s a gross perpetuation of the magical black man stereotype - a low status man with no apparent past or history with a special power aimed to influence and change the lives of the white men around him. Coffey is afraid of the dark, most likely innocent of the crime he accused of, and possessing of an extraordinary gift. He is imbued with a mystical energy force, or something like that, allowing him to cure illness, wounds, and even return the dead to life. The last of these demonstrations of Coffey’s power effectively remove the stakes from the film and create a possible plot hole near the end. Still, Michael Clarke Duncan is so good and there are scenes of such power that even the most profusely offended audience member cannot help but be in awe.
The ending of The Green Mile is the most troubling for me. I shall not reveal it, but I will say that it leaves Paul alone, depressed, and punished for his actions in the film. We know that he is a good character who could not do the impossible to help God’s gift to mankind. But is Stephen King’s God really so merciless as to punish Paul for not having the courage? Maybe, but we may have a more troubling theological issue if that’s so.
There are five things I treasure above all in films: great storytelling, great characters, great artistry, truth, and hope. The Green Mile could’ve been a great story, but is shaky as is. Its characters are unmemorable stereotypes. Darabont doesn’t display any of the visual flair of The Shawshank Redemption here. The film is not truthful; it is little more than a fairy tale. But the most devastating component of The Green Mile is that it leaves us without hope. ☆☆