1935. All over the Land of the Free, it’s the Great Depression. If you got a job, you better hold on to it. Even if it’s as a prison guard assigned to death row who has to not only witness but take part in horrible executions on a regular basis? That is only one of the moral dilemmas brought up by this powerful, beautifully crafted drama, which combines the talents of author Stephen King, director-screenwriter Frank Darabont and actor extraordinaire Tom Hanks. If this movie doesn’t get a truck load of Oscar noms, something’s rotten in the kingdom of Hollywood!
Hanks stars as Paul Edgecomb, an earnest man who tries to make the best out of his “quiet” but sweet life, with his loving wife and his little house by the woods. Of course there’s that urinary infection that makes him feel like he’s “pissing razorblades”, and his job can certainly be hell, but Edgecomb tries to stay calm and clear-thinking. He tries to ease the minds of the condemned, to avoid making their “last mile” harder than it already is. Imagine knowing that there’s no way out, that your ass is gonna be deep-fried in front of a roomful of people who hate your guts. It has to get to a man. Not every one reacts to it the same, though. You got Louisiana cat Delacroix (Michael Jeter) who finds some comfort in befriending a smart little mouse he names Mr. Jingles, while in the next cell there’s that “Billy the Kid” jerk (Sam Rockwell) who’s so used to being a mean, careless goofball that he keeps it up till the end.
And then there’s John Coffey (“like the drink but spelled differently”), played with a lot of soul by Michael Clarke Duncan. You know who the character reminded me of? Lenny from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Both are simple-minded but good-hearted kids in giant bodies, who… Well, it would be a spoiler to go on. Hanks gets a liking in that big boy instantly, for he seems sincere despite what he’s accused of. And as things turn out, Coffey is definitively not what he appears be
“The Green Mile” takes almost entirely place in the penitentiary’s Bloc E, through a few cells, an execution room, a little office and the green-tiled corridor. And as you must know, with all those loser critics whining about it, the film lasts three hours, but trust me, it totally flies by. So what if it’s long? When it’s good, you want it to last, right? “Gone With the Wind”‘s 4 hour long, I don’t hear anyone complaining. The way the film is written, it’s impossible not to be sucked into it. I’m a big Stephen King fan, and I had read “The Green Mile” in high school. It was published as a series of 6 to-be-continued novellas, and King kept things suspenseful by ending each one with a cliffhanger. Therefore, when you read it (and when you watch the film), you can’t wait to see how things will turn out.
But King’s brilliant writing isn’t enough to make a great film. A lot of filmmakers make the mistake of focusing on the supernatural elements, while the real strength of King’s work is the insightful depiction of human nature, the atmosphere, the interesting details. The movie to translate that the best is undoubtedly “The Shawshank Redemption”, which was directed by Frank Darabont too. He understands that what really matters here is the characters. His movie looks gorgeous, but what stands out even more is the quality of the acting. “The Green Mile” centers around Hanks and Duncan, but it’s also an ensemble piece. The characters are all intriguing and well developed in their own way. That’s because Darabont takes the time to show the little things that make them what they are. He could have pussied out and made an ADD-friendly 88 minute flick, but then you’d lose most of the flavor and the characters wouldn’t be as compelling. What wonderful character would be left out? The manly but reasonable Brutal (David Morse)? Son-of-a-whore with connections Percy (Doug Hutchison), who’s such a weakling that he’s got to stomp over others to boost himself up? The impeccable James Cromwell as the prison director? His dying wife (Patricia Clarkson)? Don’t tell me they’d take out the cameo by Gary Sinise! When he meets with Hanks, I had goosebumps: that’s Lieutenant Dan and Gump together again!
Here’s a wonderful picture with a deeply human core. It shows all the little contradictions of mankind, like how Coffey is a dead man walking yet he’s a Christ-like vehicle of God, capable of miracles. I also like that the film allows the characters to question themselves, which makes it even richer. People will argue ad nauseam about whether this is as good as “The Shawshank Redemption”. It’s not but so what? Each movie stands on its own. Darabont’s latest is harsher (you won’t forget the second electric chair execution, it was enough to make me change my mind about death penalty) and it’s always engrossing, despite a few flaws like the lame CGI “flies” shots (you’ll see what I mean), or how Darabont tries to hit too many notes at the end (the old guy’s speech seems forced).