The Green Mile
The Green Mile USA, 1999. Rated R. 188 minutes.

Cast: Tom Hanks, David Morse, Michael Clarke Duncan, Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Graham Greene, Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn, Patricia Clarkson, Dabbs Greer, Eve Brent, William Sadler, Gary Sinise
Writer: Frank Darabont, based on the serialized novel by Stephen King
Music: Thomas Newman

Cinematographer: David Tattersall
Producer(s): Frank Darabont, David Valdes
Director: Frank Darabont


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

I n 1994, Frank Darabont directed his first feature film, The Shawshank Redemption. Based on a Stephen King story, The Shawshank Redemption is set in a prison and chronicles the prisoners' quest for salvation and freedom. In 1999, Frank Darabont has released his second feature film, The Green Mile. Based on a Stephen King story, The Green Mile is set in a prison and chronicles the prisoners' quest for salvation and freedom. The difference is that these prisoners are on death row, with little hope of finding freedom in this world, and the jailers may be in need of redemption themselves. Though watchable and occasionally moving, The Green Mile too often feels like a mawkish and over-long return to the themes, conflicts, and artistic style of The Shawshank Redemption. Even if one accepts the more fantastical elements of the story, including a preposterous coincidence involving William Sadler's character, The Green Mile strains credibility and patience.

The Green Mile introduces us to an aged nursing home resident named Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer), who will relate the story of the most important year in his life, 1935. The unnecessary flashback device ups the schmaltz factor–it's a copy of similar devices in Saving Private Ryan and Cinema Paradiso, which set the standard for schmaltzy flashback devices. Cinema Paradiso's flashback was quite effective in tugging audiences' heartstrings, in fact, but in The Green Mile, the device doesn't have nearly the same emotional impact. Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke DuncanAdding little to the plot, it serves only to lengthen the movie, which clocks in at an unwieldy three hours. In a welcome development, Hollywood studios have in recent times been more willing to free directors from the constraint of having to tell their story in under two hours. But this is a good thing only if the content justifies the extra length.

Back in 1935, we find Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) working as head prison guard on death row at Cold Mountain Correctional Facility. Because of its dull-green linoleum tiles, death row has earned the odd nickname "The Green Mile." Edgecomb and his partners Brutus Howell (David Morse), Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper), and Harry Terwilliger (Jeffrey DeMunn) have an unpleasant job, but they are dedicated to performing it well and maintaining dignity and peace during each condemned's final days. Noble prison guards? In the deep South? In the 1930s? Yeah, that's plausible. Despite that, the actors play their roles with aplomb, almost making us believe the characters through their sheer force of will... almost. If The Green Mile works at all, it's due to the actors, particularly Hanks, who at this point has established himself firmly as one of the finest contemporary American performers.
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There's always a bad egg, though, and this particular rotten egg is named Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), whose last name turns out to be a reference to a plot point. The wimpy Wetmore was clearly teased too much in school, because he is craven, sadistic, and heartless. With his connections to the governor's wife, he has pulled strings to secure a job on the Green Mile. He wants nothing more than to watch a man die up close, and to be the guard who gives the order. Wetmore is the diametric opposite of the other guards and far worse than most of the prisoners, evil in every way imaginable. Like the other actors, Hutchison is solid, but his is a stunningly cartoonish role, which occasionally makes Hutchison appear to be grievously over-acting.

Into this setting steps new death row inmate John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), an imposing African-American convicted of butchering two young white girls. But Coffey seems to be more like a child himself than a vicious felon. Fascinated by this new prisoner, Edgecomb, Howell, Stanton, and Terwilliger discover that their own salvation could lie with Coffey, who just might be able to perform miracles. (Note that John Coffey's initials are J.C.) Is Coffey guilty? What, if anything, should Edgecomb and his friends do?

Perhaps if Darabont had never made The Shawshank Redemption (arguably the best film of 1994, even though the Oscar™ went to Forrest Gump), one could be more forgiving of The Green Mile's faults. In The Shawshank Redemption , Darabont manipulated the audience deftly, knowing just how far to push the emotion in a given scene and always stopping short of the breaking point at which viewers might throw up their hands in disgust. Because he knew that the story was a little heavy-handed, Darabont used a light touch, allowing the story to unfold leisurely before the cameras. The Green Mile has a similar gentle grace, but it's not enough to recreate the catharsis produced by The Shawskank Redemption. In fact, Darabont's style in The Green Mile is too leisurely, resulting in two hours of content being spread out over three hours of film. The cliché-ridden material pushes too far, past the point where the audience can easily accept the characters and events on the screen. The result is much like Stephen King's works in general–not unentertaining, but not great art.

Review © January 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Warner Bros.

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