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Green Mile
Directed by Frank Darabont
Starring Tom Hanks, Michael Duncan, James Cromwell, Bonnie Hunt, Gary Sinise, Doug Hutchison, Patricia Clarkson

The 1994 film Shawshank Redemption is one of those rare movies that both critics and regular filmgoers have embraced. Starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, it routinely ranks near the top of moviegoers' favorite movie lists. Interestingly, this popularity has come almost exclusively from its success on video. For it was largely ignored at the box office on first release and, though it received seven Oscar nominations, it was beat out by the Forrest Gump juggernaut for the major awards, an Academy decision that seems less and less defensible as time goes on. So it is an interesting twist that director Frank Darabont's first project since Shawshank is another Stephen King prison novel but this time starring Tom Hanks, the very actor who stole the award that should have gone to Freeman.

The Green Mile is a different animal than Shawshank, though. While that movie focused on the prisoners' plight, the attention in Green Mile is squarely on the guards in E block or Death Row. The time is 1935, and Paul Edgecomb (Hanks) is the head guard who's struggling with a painful urinary tract infection. Being a stand-up guy, he doesn't go the doctor but he's suffering all the same.

Enter John Coffey ("like the drink though not spelled the same" as we're told numerous times), a giant of a man who's been sentenced to die for raping and killing two little girls. But something's not right. Coffey (played by Michael Clarke Duncan) is, despite his enormous size, a noble savage who's scared of the dark and couldn't a hurt a mouse, much less a young girl. Though that's more than obvious to the audience, it doesn't dawn on Edgecomb until Coffey heals his infection in a burst of magical realism (and unfortunately hokey visual effects) not usually seen in a prison picture.

The rest of the film details Edgecomb's coming to terms with Coffey's ability and the difficult decision of what to do about the impending execution. That the film handles this achingly sentimental tale with grace and seriousness is a testimony to Darabont's direction as well as the fine ensemble cast.

While loving Tom Hanks seemed to be a prerequisite for patriotism through most of the '90s, a growing backlash has risen in the last year or two. Which unfortunately means that Hanks probably won't get the credit he deserves for this performance, as it is genuinely impressive (much more so than his other Oscar-winning roles). Never flashy but always pitch-perfect, Hanks is fabulous as he interacts with Coffey, the other guards, and his understanding wife (Bonnie Hunt). He's particularly strong in the numerous conversations he has with prisoners before they're about to be executed.

The horror of the death penalty is a recurring theme in the film. The audience is led through two practice executions and three genuine. And one of the latter is extraordinarily gruesome, with the body literally catching on fire when the electrocution is botched. Those with weak stomachs may find themselves covering their eyes for long stretches.

Unfortunately, the anti-death penalty stance is undermined by the irritatingly obvious way in which it's conveyed. As my friend Garth put it, there's not a trace of moral ambiguity in the film's entire three hours. The good guys are angels, and the bad guys have escaped from a place worse than Hell--the Hollywood directory of stock villains.

Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) is a weasely guard with a sadistic streak. William Wharton (Sam Rockwell) is a loathsome prisoner who takes delight in urinating on passersby. That one of them will try to kill the block's pet mouse (and what a cutie it is) is a foregone conclusion as soon as we see the little rodent. And when Coffey tells the audience for the third time, "He's a bad man," that was three times more than we needed to hear it.

That problem of obvious repetition is one that plagues the movie throughout. How many times do we have to see Edgecomb urinating to know he has a problem? How many times does Wetmore have to hit a prisoner for us to know he's despicable? And why does every scene take considerably more time than it needs to? Even in this Oscar season when two hours is a fast-paced flick, The Green Miles' 180-minute running time seems like an endurance test. If nothing else, the frame story that surrounds the story (even more irritating than the one in Saving Private Ryan) could have been chopped without affecting the film one bit.

The story's pace is further undermined by the uninspired production design. I realize a prison isn't the most colorful place, but the overwhelmingly dull color scheme of faded greens and blues extends to Green Mile's outside world as well. Unlike movies such as Cider House Rules or Anna and the King, where the beautiful cinematography compensated for some of the slower scenes, here there's nothing but the story, which isn't always good enough.

Fortunately, the acting is wonderful. Besides Hank's Oscar-worthy performance, David Morse is fantastic as Brutus, another of the good prison guards, James Cromwell is his usual solid self as Warden Hal Moores, and Duncan is convincing as the miracle-working prisoner, despite the flatness of the role. And the way the guards and prisoners deal with each other overcomes the inherent sentimentality to create something that many will find profound and moving. 

By J. Robert Parks 12/17/99 

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