|Green Mile, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 13 June 2000|
Frank Darabont wrote and directed THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, a period prison drama from a story by Stephen King. THE GREEN MILE, also written and directed by Darabont, is also a period prison drama from a story by Stephen King. But both the stories and the movies are very different works. Unlike SHAWSHANK, THE GREEN MILE covers only a few weeks or months and is about the reactions of a team of prison guards, mostly decent men, to discovering that they have a miracle-worker in their midst. The trouble is, of course, that they're the guards on the Death Row (the Green Mile) of a Louisiana state prison in 1935, and the miracle-worker is a condemned prisoner.
If you don't buy into the basic premise of the story, you're not going to buy into the movie, either: you have to be ready to accept the idea of real magic working in such a mundane arena. The movie has some problems, such as an over-reliance on closeups, and a pace that's a shade too measured. And finally, the movie is quite long, over three hours, and it could have been shorter.
Although these cavils -- they're not quite complaints -- are genuine, THE GREEN MILE is still a powerful film; you can settle into its rhythms and be caught up in its understated but compelling emotions. This, in fact, should work better in the more intimate setting of a home theater than in the somewhat more remote venue of a movie theater. Tom Hanks is the protagonist of the movie, not its star, and as usual, his performance is heart-felt, strong, sincere and appropriate.
The movie opens in the present day, in a retirement home where old Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer) has made friends with Elaine Connelly (Eve Brent). He has some kind of secret in an old shack near the grounds of the home, and one night while watching TOP HAT on television, the number "Cheek to Cheek" causes Paul to break down in tears and stumble out of the room. The rest of the movie, until it returns to old Paul at the very end, is basically his detailed explanation to Elaine of why a charming musical number would have such an unusual and profound effect on him.
In the 1930s, Paul (now Tom Hanks) was the head guard on the Green Mile; his most trusted assistants were "Brutal" Howell (David Morse), Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper) and Harry Terwilliger (Darabont veteran Jeffrey DeMunn). To the deep annoyance of all four, Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) is also frequently assigned to the mile. He got his job solely because his aunt is the wife of the governor, and he can't be fired for the same reason. He's a rotten little crumb, aware of the contempt the others feel for him.
As the movie opens, quiet Indian Arlen Bitterbuck (Graham Greene) is executed, leaving only mild-mannered, ignorant little Cajun Eduard "Del" Delacroix (Michael Jeter) on the Mile. Del befriends a cheeky little mouse that skitters through the Mile, teaching it tricks and making a pet of it. Paul and the other guards are stunned when big black John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) is brought in -- he's much bigger even than Brutal, bigger than any man any of them have seen. He is slightly retarded, and doesn't give anyone any trouble. He just rolls over on his bunk and goes to sleep.
Tricky, vicious William Wharton (Sam Rockwell) is delivered to the Green Mile. He never quite understands that he's a prisoner, completely controlled by the guards he taunts, pisses on, spews chewed-up Moonpie onto, and occasionally grabs. He gets hosed down repeatedly, and tossed into solitary. But he just won't quit.
Paul suffers from a painful infection; his wife Jan (Bonnie Hunt) worries about him, but Paul goes to work every day. He and Jan have been friends for years with Warden Hal Moores (James Cromwell) and his wife Melinda (Patricia Clarkson), so Paul and Jan are deeply upset to learn that Melinda is dying of an inoperable brain tumor.
Big John Coffey notices the pain that Paul is suffering, and one day seizes him through the bars. When he lets Paul go, Coffey staggers back, opens his mouth, and a cloud of tiny black flies swarms upward, gradually dissolving into thin air. And Paul's infection and pain are completely gone.
After Coffey's miracles, and because of his deeply gentle, almost fearful nature, Paul begins to suspect that the big man may not have committed the murders for which he's been convicted. But can he help the big man?
Where the story goes is, overall, quite predictable -- but the point of THE GREEN MILE is not to surprise us in terms of story. It's something like an old folk tale, a prison yarn passed down from guard to prisoner alike over the decades since the Depression. King is a folk artist, after all; most of his stories feel like they've been around in the culture forever, just waiting for someone to write them down. It's not a fable -- there's no moral to be drawn -- but it's told in broad, clear strokes: the good people are very good, the bad people are very bad and punished for their badness. But even the good people cannot hold back time, fate and justice (however misplaced); the song won't necessarily have a joyful ending. And in fact, the very end of THE GREEN MILE is powerfully poignant, and the boldest stroke of all -- the ending is actually unique.
It looks great, with good photography by David Tattersall and handsome production design by Terence Marsh. Both work in the context of this fantastic tale, too: the camerawork is occasionally stylized, and the sets are just a little more than realistic. It's not quite the real world, but something like a few feet to one side.
Michael Clarke Duncan fully earned his supporting actor Oscar nomination. David Morse acts with quiet authority; Barry Pepper and Jeffrey DeMunn supply effective backup. Sam Rockwell is good, but his role is very broad. The standout supporting performances are by Doug Hutchison and Michael Jeter, whose characters have much more depth and complexity than it seems at first. And Jeter has one of the most spectacular death scenes in movie history.
THE GREEN MILE got more mixed reviews than SHAWSHANK partly because it's not the kind of movie it at first appears to be. It's not a realistic tale of prison life, like "The Shawshank Redemption;" it's a folk song filmed on a near-epic but intimate scale. And it sings a lovely melody. Audiences responded, albeit slowly; it held a spot in the top ten grossers for week after week after week.
The DVD should have offered a more interesting package of extras than it does. There's the usual trailer, language selections and chapter stops, but no outtakes, no deleted scenes and, worst of all, no commentary from writer-director Darabont. The "making-of" documentary, Walking the Mile, includes some interesting interview clips (including some comments by Stephen King), but it's produced in an off-putting, self-important style. The movie deserved better.