The Green Mile (1999)
Directed by Frank Darabont
Cast: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, Doug Hutchison, David Morse, Michael Jeter, Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell, Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, Dabbs Greer, Eve Brent, Graham Greene, Harry Dean Stanton, Patricia Clarkson, Jeffrey DeMunn.
1999 182 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, violence, and graphic depictions of electrocutions).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 11, 1999.
Expectations have been running so high for Frank Darabont's adaptation of the Stephen King serial novel, "The Green Mile," that many film industrialites prematurely labeled it "The Best Film of 1999," even before it was finished filming. 'Premature' is the correct adjective because, while "The Green Mile" is a very fine, intimately made drama on its own, it does not come close to standing up to its lofty presumptions. This is not a criticism of the film itself, but simply a negative observation about how hype is more often than not highly unnecessary, and ends up doing more damage than good.
Aside from the 3-hour-plus running time, "The Green Mile" occasionally bears a slight resemblance to 1997's "Titanic," particularly in the wraparound story in which we meet a very old man named Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer), who lives at a nursing home and breaks down crying one afternoon when he happens to see Fred Astaire singing "Cheek to Cheek" in an old movie. When confidante Elaine (a fabulous Eve Brent) shows her concern and goes to see what is the matter, Paul decides to tell her a story that took place sixty years before, and that he has never discussed until now.
Switch back to the year of 1935 in Louisiana, a much-younger Paul (Tom Hanks) works as a prison guard at the Cold Mountain Penitentiary, where the convicted criminals on death row are sent. Currently suffering a painful bladder infection, but with a lovely, supportive wife (Bonnie Hunt), Paul's whole perspective on life gradually changes with the appearance of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a 7-foot-tall, 350-LB. black man who has been convicted of raping and murdering two young girls. Like a giant kid himself, John instantly does not seem like the type who would hurt a fly, as he even requests that the lights stay on at night, "'cuz I'm scared of the dark."
Other inmates are met and also focused on, including Arlen Bitterbuck (Graham Greene), a highly spiritual Native American; William "Wild Bill" Wharton (Sam Rockwell), a psychopath as crazy as a crap-house rat; and Eduard "Del" Delacroix (Michael Jeter), a kindhearted man who befriends Mr. Jingles, a mouse that roams The Green Mile, called that because the floors are painted green as they lead the inmates to their executions. Complicating matters is the arrival of a new, young prison guard hotshot named Percy (Doug Hutchison), a truly despicable human being who gets his kicks out of humiliating and deliberately hurting others. As time passes, we watch as some of the inmates are taken to their deaths, people that we have grown to care about, and all the while Paul grows a close friendship with John Coffey, who, through supernatural plot developments that will not be divulged here, he becomes convinced is innocent of the crimes which will inevitably send him to his wrongful execution.
Frank Darabont, whose previous film was the similar Stephen King-adapted "The Shawshank Redemption," has returned back to the setting of a prison for the second time in a row, and it cannot be denied that he has a definite flare for this sort of storyline. While "The Shawshank Redemption" was that rare case in which it bombed in movie theaters, but gained an overwhelmingly positive following on video, I was not one of its strongest supporters. At close to 2 1/2 hours, the picture was an effective, but severely flawed drama that had (to me) several long, dry stretches in the middle that could have easily been cut out. In comparison, "The Green Mile" is over 3 hours in length, but never once overstays its welcome, nor does it even feel like a movie of such great length. This is because, while deliberately paced, it also has been tightly edited by Richard Francis-Bruce, with not one scene that should have been thrown on the cutting room floor; every second of screen time has a clear purpose, even when the developments themselves begin to grow strained by the finale.
One of the most powerful attributes of the film is its depiction of time passing within the penitentiary, as certain intimately drawn characters come and go through death row, just to end up as nothing more than memories within the walls of the building. This subject matter is superbly handled under the helming of writer-director Darabont, as are the occasional sequences of execution by electric chair. Credit must go to Darabont again for not turning his back on these harsh moments, as he graphically depicts the death scenes, which are tough to take not only for what they shows, but also because the victims are people we have grown to like and respect, whether they are guilty or not of their convicted crimes. One particular execution sequence is just about as stirring and devastatingly inhumane as anything I have ever seen on film before.
The ensemble cast of "The Green Mile" is first-rate across the board, headlined by star Tom Hanks, whose exact, naturalistic turn as Paul Edgecomb could very well be his most impressive since 1993's "Philadelphia" or 1994's "Forrest Gump." A perfect balance of personalities and casting, newcomer Michael Clarke Duncan is genuinely effective as the magical, honest John Coffey, all the more striking because it is his feature film debut.
Supporting players all make an impression, no one more so than Michael Jeter, who is outstanding as inmate Del, a terminally lonely but giving person who finds joy in his life through the sort of loyal partnership he forms with Mr. Jingles. Heartbreaking and not easy to forget, Jeter gives one of the strongest supporting performances of the year. As cruel and heartless as a movie character can be without heading in cartoonish territory is Doug Hutchison, as Percy, a man without one redeeming quality who strives on the pain he causes others. While never rising above two dimensions, Hutchison still makes quite an impact. Sam Rockwell, a chameleon who has proven in recent years to be able to play a wide spectrum of characters (1997's "Box of Moonlight," 1998's "Lawn Dogs"), is downright creepy as William Wharton, a maniac that John Coffey senses is downright evil. The underrated Bonnie Hunt also turns in fine work as Paul's wife, despite not having much to do.
While thoroughly effective and well-made, one major misstep the film takes is in its final fifteen minutes which, at first, abruptly switches gears into more mainstream territory, complete with a climactic scene that feels overly calculated and tough to swallow. This moment is so disappointing because it is purposefully treated to be a scene that gets audiences to cry, rather than one that is more truthful to the situation. Accordingly, when the wraparound story comes back into play in the end, the film takes another turn for the worst. Instead of being merely downbeat, the conclusion is inappropriately depressing and uncalled-for, and left me feeling more revolted than emotionally satisfied. [Side note: Riding home with my brother afterwards, we got into a brief argument spurred from me making a sarcastic comment at him, because the movie had put me in a very bad mood].
The ending may have come as a major letdown, but that, ultimately, cannot take away from the first 165 minutes of "The Green Mile," which are consistently engrossing and perceptive. Darabont is a master of writing and populating his films with memorable, solid supporting characters, and he has struck gold with his cast this time around. It's just too bad, then, that the finale could not have been stronger. It downgrades a potentially great film to being, at most, a very good one.
©1999 by Dustin Putman