The Green Mile

Told with the assurance of a master filmmaker, “The Green Mile” emerges as one of the most absorbing, heartfelt films of the year.

A good film has the ability to take you away for a couple of hours. A great film stays with you long after the final credits have rolled. “The Green Mile” is a great film. It is filled with memorable characters and images, all perfectly realized by director Frank Darabont.

greenmilephotoBased on the six book serial by Stephen King, Darabont’s script shows an uncommon understanding of the human condition. You are easily transported out of the theater and into the character’s lives.

Like King’s serialization, Darabont takes his time introducing us to the central players. He wisely provides us with the opportunity to know the characters and understand them. This is important because the film deals with prisoners on death row. Their deaths would be meaningless if we were not able to establish a connection with them.

Thanks to Darabont’s intuitive screenplay and flawless direction, “The Green Mile” becomes a thoughtful examination of one man’s crusade to bring humanity to an inhumane situation.

That man is Paul Edgecomb, the head guard of the Cold Mountain Penitentiary Death Row. As played by Tom Hanks in yet another consummate performance, Edgecomb is a kind and fair man whose job happens to be putting people to death. Even when chaos reigns, Edgecomb keeps a level head.

It’s a tricky performance, and Hanks nails it. He shows us a man who deals in death and yet chooses to embrace life. His fairness and optimism is shared by most of his co-workers, who opt to treat the prisoners with respect as they face their last days on earth.

The only exception is Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), a pest of a person and the only guard to treat the prisoners with disdain. Thanks to Wetmore’s political connections, the other guards are forced to put up with his disrespect and disregard.

“The Green Mile” is what the guards call the cell block, so named because of its lime green floor. This is the last stop for death row prisoners before they are executed in an electric chair nicknamed Old Sparky.

Currently on the row are Eduard “Del” Delacroix (Michael Jeter), a Cajun convict who befriends a mouse and names it Mr. Jingles, and Arlen Bitterbuck (Graham Greene), a Native American. Into this mix arrives “Wild Bill” Wharton (Sam Rockwell), a serial killer with a real mean streak, and John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a simple-minded black man convicted of murdering two little white girls.

Coffey, who is quick to note that his name is pronounced like the beverage, but spelled differently, may be simple-minded, but he’s not dumb. The kind hearted behemoth displays uncommon compassion for someone accused of murder.

Even though the murder Coffey is accused of begins the film, we don’t really meet him until an hour into the story. In order for us to fully appreciate and understand Coffey’s journey, Darabont takes his time introducing the characters who will accompany him. By the time Coffey arrives on the scene, we know that this special man will be in good hands.

Edgecomb is the first to understand Coffey’s special gift. When we first meet Edgecomb, he is suffering from a rather nasty urinary infection. Ignoring the pleas of his loving wife Jan (Bonnie Hunt) to see a doctor, Edgecomb would rather piss razor blades than show any weakness in front of his men.

All that changes when Coffey offers Edgecomb a helping hand, immediately clearing up his condition. Edgecomb is so grateful that he heads home and makes love to his wife. Edgecomb feels so good that he even phones in sick the next day in order to continue the tryst.

Once Edgecomb understands what he’s dealing with, his task is to convince his co-workers. The only one left out of the loop is Wetmore, whose blood lust escalates with each execution. Even Wild Bill understands the situation, but instead of embracing it, uses it to torment his captors.

Coffey’s gift changes all of the rules. Should someone with so much to offer be executed? It’s a dilemma that haunts all of the characters, especially Edgecomb, who suspects that Coffey is innocent of the crime he’s accused of. When Coffey takes Edgecomb’s hand and shows him the truth, the revelation raises the stakes even higher.

In less talented hands, “The Green Mile” could have been hokey. It deals with supernatural elements that require complete conviction from the cast to pull off. One weak link would send this house of cards tumbling down. Fortunately, there isn’t one.

Hanks receives excellent support from the rest of the cast, especially Michael Clarke Duncan, who plays Coffey. After playing supporting roles, Duncan graduates to the front of the class with a performance that resonates with truth and honesty. Hopefully there is an Oscar nomination in his future.

David Morse, Barry Pepper, and Jeffrey DeMunn play Edgecomb’s co-workers, and all are splendid. They create a sense of community that is believable. You love to hate Hutchison’s Wetmore, who is more of a vermin than Mr. Jingles. James Cromwell is sturdy as the prison warden with a sickly wife (the wonderful Patricia Clarkson), while Michael Jeter is absolutely unique as Del.

Del’s relationship with the trained mouse Mr. Jingles provides the film with some much needed levity, and serves as a microcosm for the rest of the characters. The guards and prisoners are nothing more than trained mice going through their daily routines, hoping to reach the end of the maze.

Like all great films, “The Green Mile” perfectly establishes time and place. Set in Louisiana in the 1930s, the film has that hot, sweaty Southern look you can only get on location. Period detail is authentic thanks to Terence Marsh’s production design. David Tattersall’s cinematography bathes the proceedings in a golden hue that is quite nostalgic, while Thomas Newman’s score is so ingrained in the action you almost don’t hear it.

Darabont is so in tune with King and his vision that no other writer-director should ever be approached for the job. I couldn’t image a better version of “The Green Mile” than this. Definitely one of the best films of 1999.



Tom Hanks, David Morse, Michael Clarke Duncan, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Barry Pepper, Bonnie Hunt, Jeffrey DeMunn, Sam Rockwell and Doug Hutchison in a film directed by Frank Darabont. Rated R. 182 Minutes.


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