The Green Mile (1999)

Stephen King’s long episodic novel The Green Mile about a series of strange and mystical occurrences on death row was an entertaining read, mostly because of the process in which King created and released it. He wrote a new chapter, published it, wrote a new chapter, published it…. It was interesting to see the way he choreographed the many characters and differing plots into a cohesive whole, even if the story was rather formulaic, predictable, and crowd-pleasing.

Frank Darabont, who turned a simple King short story into an ambitious movie called The Shawshank Redemption, restrained himself from embellishments this time around. This sprawling three-hour epic faithfully re-creates the story. The whole story. And nothing but the story.

Perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea.

While the cast of The Green Mile is very strong and the cinematography excellent, the story should have been condensed and tightened. In its fullness, it is not compelling enough to keep those of us who see a lot of movies from checking our watches. (I checked mine four times.)

Many have come to me teary-eyed to tell me how deeply they were moved by this movie, how wonderful it was, and wasn’t Tom Hanks good? I have yet to understand what it is about the story that moves them so deeply. There are a lot of superficial elements working on viewers to create emotional reactions, but the whole operation feels as manufactured as those slogans posted on the posters that say “There will be no better film this year.”

Are there better films this year? Dozens and dozens of them. 1999 has been a year of innovation and astonishing surprises. But people are beginning to recognize the sincerity of Tom Hanks, the inclusion of some generic God-talk and mysticism, and the context of death row as automatic big-screen guarantees of Importance. The Green Mile is determined to be Important. It even includes unnecessary old-man-reflecting-on-his-life bookend scenes that recall Saving Private Ryan, only this time they last fifteen minutes each instead of five.

Darabont, who again proves a talented director of actors, shows that he’s not terribly interested in subtle filmmaking or challenging storytelling. This is a good guys vs. bad guys movie. And it’s perfectly clear in the introduction of each character who’s a good guy, who’s a bad guy. Because this is a Stephen King story, we should expect that every good guy will win the day, and every bad guy will come to a violent and nasty end. The Green Mile is like a World Wrestling Federation event, setting up the good and handsome versus the bad and ugly. You can see hardly-subliminal signs flashing at the audience, coaxing “CHEER NOW” and “BOO NOW”.

As for the murder mystery at the heart of the story, there’s no mystery at all. There are no clues that might raise any questions about the innocence or guilt of anyone present. It’s clear from our first conversation that the gentle-giant played by Michael Clarke Duncan was convicted by a rash and prejudiced jury.

And even more disappointing, The Green Mile makes us live on death row for three hours without ever giving us a moment to think about the moral dilemmas present.

It’s really a shame. How often do we get to see such a great ensemble of actors? Hanks is good in spite of his cookie cutter character; I’d even venture to say he deserves an Oscar for this performance far more than he did for Philadelphia, where his one distinguishing characteristic was that he had AIDS.

David Morse, a strong but underrated actor, gets a rare chance to play a nice guy, and he makes warm and pleasant company.

Bonnie Hunt is the movie’s greatest delight, playing the closest thing to a real human being in the film; her scenes enliven this otherwise trudging affair.

Poor Gary Sinise seems to shrug, “I’m only in this movie ‘cuz my buddy Forrest Gump asked me to help him out.”

Michael Jeter offers us another memorable eccentric, but he gets upstaged in most of his scenes by the movie’s whimsical mouse.

And Michael Clarke Duncan as the convicted John Coffey (Note: Portentous initials!) thankfully shows restraint playing the giant at the center of the story, when he might have gone for broke and over-played the film’s emotional peak scenes. An Oscar nomination might be in order. Too bad his almost-interesting character has to step aside during key scenes and let the special effects department demonstrate his magical powers for him. I would rather have learned a little more about the human being and seen a little less of the digitally animated curses his body can grotesquely release into the air. Dave Kehr in Film Comment observes, “the Saintly John Coffey, as the most innocent and most misunderstood of the characters, is entitled, by King’s emotional algebra, to be the most ferociously vengeful.”

Perhaps the most troubling thing about this film, besides its revelry in serving up ugly bloody justice to the bad guys, is its climactic sermon. In the end, one character delivers a speech about being tired of the evils of the world. He practically ASKS to be sent to the electric chair because he’s weary of these ugly and evil men in the prison. (Cue the audience to start bawling and nodding in agreement.) Is this movie making an argument for euthanasia and suicide? Should nice folks have the option of giving up the ghost when they get tired of darkness? If so, then we may find some moviegoers quietly killing themselves to escape this endless film. Perhaps there’s a better alternative. Perhaps it’s more honorable to live in the world in spite of its evils, resisting them and manifesting an alternative to the darkness… to be good and merciful and strong and faithful, not to give up.

And this movie is being described as inspiring? To me it just seems morbid, melancholy, sad, and far too long.

This fictional universe is as un-realistic as they come, and if it has anything significant to convey, beyond the shocking lesson that Big African-American Men Who Talk Baby-Talk might actually be valuable human beings (stop the presses!), well, I missed it. (Earlier this year, people were offended by the Star Wars character Jar Jar Binks, saying he portrayed an archaic and offensive stereotype of an African American. Why aren’t they up in arms about John Coffey? As the only African American in the film, he’s hardly a decent representative. In fact, he seems to have walked out of Disney’s Song of the South as an underdeveloped and even insulting caricature.)

Instead of taking this opportunity to depart from Stephen King’s color-by-numbers storytelling and create something memorable, Darabont gives us plenty of messages that we already agree with, and then sends us home feeling good about ourselves. How moral we are, hating those ugly bad guys and cheering when they get their violent judgment. How conscientious we are, shedding a tear when those poor nice criminals get the electric chair. And how intelligent we are, sympathizing with Tom Hanks, the only character with a brain on this long long mile.

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