The Green Mile
One thing we've all learned in the past twenty-five years is that Stephen King can tell us any story he wishes, and we will sit like children round the evening campfire, enthralled by every word. Sometimes frightened, sometimes amused, sometimes simply fascinated by the endless invention, we are bewitched by everything he creates.
That does not mean that every story is perfect, and "The Greeen Mile," a story of events on death row, is not. It is overwritten, is too much of a consciously contrived allegory to have the resonance of his best work, and the film that Frank Darabont has written and directed from it, at a full three hours, is too faithful by an hour. Nevertheless, like sleepy children, we cannot tear ourselves away for fear of missing something. Darabont made his mark in 1994 with "Shawshank Redemption," his magnificent film of King's novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," which like "The Green Mile" is also set in a state prison.
Here, however, we are on death row, and the green mile is death-house slang for the floor the condemned men walk to the electric chair. The year is 1935, and Tom Hanks is Paul Edgecomb, the officer in charge of that cell block. A mild and thoughtful man -- and let me point out that Hanks can play mild and thoughtful men better than anyone else working today -- he treats his charges with consideration and courtesy. One day a new prisoner is brought in, a giant of a black man named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a gentle, illiterate, inarticulate man who seems to possess miraculous healing powers. He has been convicted of raping and murdering two little white girls.
Darabont takes his time throughout, letting the film flow and ebb, bringing us other convicts, showing us the horror of electrocutions (including one that is probably the most exquisitely painful film sequence in motion picture history), offsetting a sadistic guard with a comparably sadistic prisoner, and giving us the chance to spend a long time with this strange and moving group of men. But he has also given the film a less successful perspective by copying the bookend framing device used in "Saving Private Ryan" and beginning and ending the film with the aged Edgecomb in the present day, all these years later.
Long as it is, the film is never less than compelling, though its length is more a tribute to King's and Darabont's ability to weave a spell than it is to the intrinsic power of the story. We accept the supernatural element of the film because both of them have presented it with frank directness and equanimity. In fact they undercut what would otherwise be melodrama by the use of an extraordinary music theme (by Thomas Newman) that combines a thin, haunting melody with a kind of repeating low, institutional buzzer that reminds us where we are and will not let us get caught up in fantasy. It's a remarkable choice and adds immensely to the power of the film's best moments.
The character of John Coffey is obviously a reference to a Christ-like figure, who takes on the pain of others, and even is the agent of justice and retribution, as his own death comes closer. Duncan gives a wonderful performance that refuses to settle for cheap, tear-jerking effects, and could well deserve an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. But everyone here is fine, from David Morse as Hanks's right-hand man, to Sam Rockwell as a psychopathic killer, to the old reliable James Cromwell as the prison warden.
What the film does not need is the contemporary opening and closing, the framing device. The end, in fact, with a supernatural carryover, is so unbelievable that it almost undoes everything that came before. It's odd, and disappointing, that King, Darabont and Hanks would all have agreed on a choice as bad as that ending, for a film that otherwise has engaged us with such understated power for three hours.