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GREEN MILE, THE(director/writer: Frank Darabont; screenwriter: from a Stephen King novel; cinematographer: David Tattersall; editor: Richard Francis-Bruce; cast: Tom Hanks (Paul Edgecomb), David Morse (Brutus Howell), Bonnie Hunt (Jan Edgecomb), Michael Clarke Duncan (John Coffey), James Cromwell (Warden Hal Moores), Michael Jeter (Eduard Delacroix), Graham Greene (Arlen Bitterbuck), Doug Hutchison (Percy Wetmore), Sam Rockwell (Wild Bill Wharton), Barry Pepper (Dean Stanton), Jeffrey DeMunn (Harry Terwilliger), Patricia Clarkson (Melinda Moores), Harry Dean Stanton (Toot-Toot), Dabbs Greer (Old Paul Edgecomb), Eve Brent (Elaine Connelly); Runtime: 188; Warner Bros.; 1999)
“Its 188 minutes of viewing time seemed like a life sentence.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Green Mile is adapted from Stephen King’s novel, that was written in several installments and it features many supernatural things that happen in the Death Row of a Louisiana prison in the middle of the Depression in 1935. It gives the believers in such spiritual transcendence something to cheer about and may give the faithful Christians who view the film a renewed belief in heaven and hell, in God, and in redemption. It’s a “feel good” story that is steeped in religious allegory.

The Green Mile is the nickname given to the Cold Mountain Louisiana State Penitentiary’s Death Row, which has a floor with a faded green color where the condemned prisoner takes his dead man’s walk. It takes the film three long hours to tell its incredulous story about an unusual innocent black prisoner who is in Death Row for the murder and rape of two little white girls. The movie is told in flashback, just like Hanks did in Saving Private Ryan, as the memories of Paul, a former guard at the Green Mile, who is now a 108-year-old (Dabbs Greer) resident in a nursing home, gets off his chest all the memories that he has never fully shared with anyone else.

John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), whose initials are J.C. (you know, like that other J.C. from Jerusalem), is a simpleminded giant with supernatural healing powers who points out to those whom he is introduced to that he spells his name not the same way as the drink.

What follows is a nightshift story on Death Row, telling of many unbelievable things: an intelligent mouse brought back to life from the dead; the supervisor prison guard, Paul Edgecombe (Tom Hanks), being cured of a severe urinary infection by Coffey’s putting his hands on his testicles; a prison warden (James Cromwell) having his wife’s cancerous tumor cured by a kiss from Coffey, whereby he sucks her tumor into his body system; visions coming to Coffey about those he touches; and, several other miracles Jesus himself would have been proud to have done.

The Green Mile is the most faithful retelling of a Stephen King novel ever put to film and thereby someone like myself who is not a fan of his, is stuck with the popular writer’s excesses on film (he makes me cringe at how scattered his artistic intentions usually turn out to be). What the film is trying to say after it spends so much time on the pedestrian lives of the prison workers and those who are prisoners is difficult to say, because the director, Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), really never came to the point he wants to make. The message of this film is so muddled, that there seems to be no point to be made except to say how nice most of the people are in this prison.

It is a film showing miracles in an unbelievable way. Some viewers might be taken in by the benign mood of the story, still others could be enthralled by seeing how the electric chair works, while others might just like the film for its solid development of its main characters. There was much to like about this implausible thriller that would have been better served, if it had been pared down to around an eighty or ninety minute film. Darabont spends so much time with a mouse called Mr. Jingles, who serves no essential need in the story and whose animated antics for the most part bored me.

The best thing about the film was the performances gleaned from Hank’s nice guy guard to Duncan’s enormous presence to David Morse’s role as the steady Death Row prison guard. The actors were all terrific, they couldn’t have handled themselves any better, especially since they were dealing with material that was very hard to swallow.

The star of the film, though, is an electric chair fondly called “Old Sparky” by the guards. The filmmaker laboriously goes through the electric chair drill that the guards have before the execution, which made for at least a dull half hour of viewing. But not satisfied with that, the audience is treated to three other electric chair executions and watching all the dull routines the guards go through in their daily work schedule. The most important lesson learned is that before the condemned man fries, the sponge placed on top of his head better be wet or else you get a horribly botched execution.

The tight group of Death House guards are just about the nicest bunch of fellows you would ever want to meet except for one, who is a one-dimensional sadistic jerk (Doug Hutchison). Paul says of him, “The man is mean, careless and stupid–that’s a bad combination in a place like this.” He got this job because his aunt is married to the governor of the state and even though he could have a more choice job in the state, he prefers to stay here because he likes to watch the executions.

The prisoners are also a great bunch of guys, but they too have a real sadistically inclined jerk among them (Sam Rockwell). You can just guess what happens to these two sadistic jerks by the film’s end, sort of King’s reward to the audience for sitting through all his spooky doings.

The Green Mile is a handsomely made film, one that tried so hard to make the audience forget how emotionally manipulative it was. A film where the black giant, convicted of killing two white children after raping them in segregationist Louisiana, is treated like a royal visitor in his cell (doesn’t the author realize that we’re talking about a time of segregation in that state when what he is asking us to believe, is not believable!). The giant is viewed as someone who has been granted a divine gift but is still afraid of the dark, is illiterate, and defers to whites reinforcing the vile stereotypes for the Negro of that era. His explanation for being captured while holding onto the two dead girls is, “I just took it back, is all.” Whatever that means, though, the filmmaker is implying that this black man is around to perform miracles for only the good white folks, as he offers them his forgiveness for the horrors their people brought into the world. With that being said, this film can’t even make a concise statement about an innocent man being executed, which was the fodder of so many 1930s prison films whose directors clearly took a stand. If the filmmaker wanted to make a statement against such executions, the Everyman Tom Hanks plays wouldn’t have been the one pulling the switch in my film. I would have chosen an actor with a darker personality to play the part.

The Green Mile lost its grit after one lightbulb-exploding scene too many, and its 188 minutes of viewing time seemed like a life sentence. The film had nowhere to go after its ‘entertaining’ executions began taking place. The miracles shown had as much believability as the fairy tale concocted for the benefit of that daffy condemned prisoner (Michael Jeter).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”