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The Green Mile

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Green Mile

Starring: Tom Hanks, Patricia Clarkson
Director: Frank Darabont
Rated: R
RunTime: 180 Minutes
Release Date: December 1999
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: James Cromwell, Jeffrey DeMunn, Michael Duncan, Graham Greene, Bonnie Hunt, Christopher Joel Ives, Michael Jeter, David Morse, Gary Sinise

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"The Green Mile" has come out at an opportune time when the Supreme Court is again considering whether capital punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Motivated by two botched executions in Florida, the court has agreed once again to research whether the legal taking of life squares with the Constitution's Eighth Amendment.

And what an argument the movie presents! Without polemically coming out for or against capital punishment, Frank Darabont's script, based closely on Stephen King's once-serialized set of six novellas, takes on universal meaning while implicitly condemning the legal taking of live by the state. The world is populated with bad people. Always was and always will be. But there are good guys out there to to meliorate--if not cancel out--the evil. This is the overall communication of King's page-turner, a book whose prose is hardly lyrical, whose story is less than original, but which is nonetheless a compelling piece of fiction. Because this concept is graphically dramatized by King, the book makes for a solid choice for a screen adaption and, given the top-notch ensemble acting and effective--if generally conventional--cinematography under Frank Darabont's direction, the three hours slide by effortlessly as the audience takes in the pathos and the humor of a remarkable story.

Given Stephen King's penchant for horror and the supernatural, you'd expect the usual suspects of kiddieland shivers: shaking rooms, characters turning vampiric, ghouls emerging from nooks and crannies: but happily "The Green Mile" treats the transcendental with a light touch, discreetly displaying occult occurrences more as metaphor than materiality. Framing the tale by opening and closing it in the present day--which gives the picture the mood of Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List"--Darabont opens the drama on the 108-year-old Paul Edgecomb (played at that stage by Dabbs Greer) who chats with his best friend in a nursing home about his experiences during the 1930s when he was just 44 years old. Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), the supervising guard in the Louisiana death house, oversees a handful of prisoners scheduled to die in the Cold Spring Penitentiary electric chair. We get the impression from the current crew who are behind bars that some have been quiet and repentant while others are off-the-wall guilt-free blackguards with no compunctions about what they had done. Edgecomb runs the ward together with Brutus Howell (David Morse), Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper), Harry Terwilliger (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), the last being a well-connected sadist who never lets a moment pass by without doing his worst to the prisoners. Life changes dramatically when a huge convict, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) is brought in, found guilty of brutally raping and murdering two young girls--found by a posse with the victims still bloodied in his arms. Illiterate, retarded, and menacing, Coffey is nonetheless a man of a sweet disposition that belies his alleged crime--a murder which even his lawyer (Gary Sinise) believes he committed. You become aware of Stephen King's hand only when some wondrous events occur, circumstances that convince the guards that this enormous man is a miracle of God. One involves the way John Coffey helps Edgecomb with a particularly gruesome problem--a urinary tract infection that forces him to urinate "razor blades" and puts a damper on his marriage. The other, shown in a remarkably touching scene, is the technique he uses to aid a little mouse who has become the pet of one of the convicts, Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter), a Cajun who is despised by guard Percy.

Most of the considerable running time of the picture is spent on the daily routines, the drama coming from the contrast between two evil fellows and the decent people who must deal with them. One convict, known as Wild Bill Wharton (Sam Rockwell) is so off-the-wall heinous that we wonder how he was ever judged competent to stand trial. Similarly Percy Wetmore demonstrates that people on the other side of the bars can be almost as abhorrent, and given the power vested in them by the state are capable of inflicting great damage. By contrast, the other guards are men of conscience who do their best to keep things quiet on the wing by acting diplomatically with the doomed prisoners.

The title of the story comes from the green linoleum that lines the floor of the death chamber, a floor that each condemned man must eventually walk down on the way to "Old Sparky." In what is conceivably authentic historically, when a condemned man is executed, he is not walled off from the dozen or so witnesses but "rides the lightning" just a few feet away from the observers in the first row. We can only speculate as to the reason director Darabont--known for his "Shawshank Redemption" several years back--chose graphically to stage executions thrice, in one case graphically displaying the result of a botched job in which the prisoner was literally burned alive. (Such an event actually occurred not just once in Florida's electric chair, the last causing the Supreme Court to reconsider the justice of the death penalty once again.)

Though many will predictably say that the film could be tightened and cut to two hours, the decency of all but one of the guards, the compelling performance by Michael Duncan as a man able to perform astonishing feats, and the skillful manner by which the men, good and evil are contrasted, provide solid justification for its unusual length. Terence Marsh's production design is adept enough that the movie avoids the closed-in feeling that could have given the indoor scenes the appearance of a photographed play. This picture is, like the cigarette of the old-time commercials, worth walking a mile for.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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