by Rob Gonsalves
In a movie that's terrible anyway -- 'Patch Adams' comes immediately to mind -- bad, cheesy, sentimental moments can be perversely pleasurable: they tip a merely poor movie over the edge into something ripe for vicious parody. On the other hand, such moments in an otherwise fine movie can be painful. Instead of relishing the awfulness, we want to pass quickly over it.The Green Mile, a handsome, well-crafted movie, has enough such moments to crush a lesser movie -- or, for that matter, a shorter one. That it survives is a testament to its intelligence and conviction; it also has enough rascally, lowdown moments to balance the uplifting ones, which, as usual, weigh a movie down rather than lifting it up.
"Decent, sturdy, and overlong."
The Green Mile is based on Stephen King's novel, first published in serial-book form in the summer of 1996 -- a summer I happily spent devouring each new installment and impatiently awaiting the next. Like most of King's work, this is a story of metaphysical fantasy wedded to grim reality. What if a hulking accused child-killer, sentenced to the electric chair, had the power to heal? The convict in question, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan, from Armageddon), had been found with two dead girls, one in each massive arm; now he has a date with "Old Sparky," the electric chair at the end of the cell block known to its guards as the Green Mile.
The hero, Paul Edgecomb, keeps things running smoothly on the Mile. He's a compassionate guard who takes no pleasure in strapping men in to "ride the lightning" -- it's a sad, necessary business (this is 1935, decades before lethal injection). He reserves his anger for fellow guard Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), a wet-nosed sadist who taunts and torments the inmates at every convenience. Paul also strikes up an unlikely friendship with Coffey, who changes Paul's life in small ways and one big way. Stephen King probably didn't write Paul with Tom Hanks in mind, but it's hard to see anyone else in the role. Packing some extra beef, Hanks once again embodies decency without overselling it -- unlike his director, Frank Darabont.
You may recall that Darabont's only previous feature, The Shawshank Redemption, was another Stephen King prison drama. Those expecting the Kubrickian rigor and plot ingenuity of Shawshank should prepare for a letdown: The Green Mile is almost perfectly faithful to King's loosely structured tale, sometimes to a fault. The movie's climax, following King's, eradicates any chance of complexity -- a revelation late in the game is awfully reminiscent of Shawshank. I've read an early draft of Darabont's script, and he decided to cut a couple of important bits (a scene or two detailing why Coffey's fate is inevitable) and, mercifully, the annoying Percy-like lout in the framing sequences who taunts the elderly Paul. Darabont has a satisfying sense of weight, a true respect for men speaking quietly and gravely to each other, but his work here alternates between subtlety and crowd-pleasing blow-outs; too often, he's trying to out-Spielberg Spielberg.
Fortunately, Darabont is a whiz with actors, and he gets vivid performances from David Morse and Barry Pepper as Paul's right-hand men, the big, soulful Duncan sadly awaiting his end, Bonnie Hunt as Paul's wife, Michael Jeter as the Cajun inmate for whom bad things are in store, and particularly Sam Rockwell as the Mile's newest family member, William Wharton, the kind of wild-ass psycho King specializes in (although Wharton, a Charlie Starkweather type, seems to belong to the '50s more than the '30s). Special mention should be made of the several talented mice playing Mr. Jingles, the tiny cheese-eater who lightens things up on the Mile (and in this movie); they're all terrific.
At three hours plus, The Green Mile probably overstays its welcome by about a half hour or so. Afterward, you may get the feeling that this material might have been better served in a two-night ABC miniseries. I also found it interesting that Darabont makes it easy for us to sympathize with the two killers prior to Coffey who go to meet Old Sparky: significantly, we're never told what their crimes were (drunken murderer and rapist/killer, respectively, according to the book). The Green Mile thus becomes an abstract fable about men awaiting death (as are we all, don't you know), without much moral shading.Still, for that we can turn to documentaries or Dostoyevsky. This is a big-studio film based on a hastily written work by our great populist author. As such, it's dotted with many fine moments, clotted with a few flabby ones. Having now seen that he can adapt Stephen King -- not once but twice -- with more high seriousness than anyone outside Kubrick, I'll be curious to see what else Frank Darabont has to offer.
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originally posted: 01/23/07 20:37:29