The Green Mile (1999)

by Mark Reiter


Concerned Fathers

It’s not news to anyone that Steven King screen adaptations get tossed into two categories: absolute crap (Maximum Overdrive, Cujo, Pet Cemetery, et. al.) and “important” American cinema (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Frank Darabont’s previous King adaptation, The Shawshank Redemption). Yet, King is important in the same way that McDonald’s is important: both claim viability through sheer volume of product. This may explain why, even after failures like The Tommyknockers and Needful Things, King’s novels still generate big-screen counterparts. That a hit (or even a decent) King-based film is hard to come by has little to do with the quality of King’s writing, but everything to do with the inescapable fact that at his core, the so-called modern master of horror is really a whore.

But, perhaps this only enhances his appeal in Hollywood. His work has recently become serious cultural capital, a development abetted in 1995 by the multi-Oscar-nominated Shawshank. With The Green Mile, he managed to squeeze a few million more out of the “serialized novel” prank he pulled on devoted readers a few years back. Now, gunning for your one time $7.50 instead of six installments of $5.95 for the print version, King and Darabont reteam for the film version.

cover art

The Green Mile

Director: Frank Darabont
Cast: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Sam Rockwell, James Cromwell, Barry Pepper

(Castle Rock Entertainment)
US theatrical: 10 Dec 1999 (General release)

As a film, The Green Mile‘s simplicity is both its charm and its deception. A Christ narrative tinged with New Age spirituality and cloaked in the guise of a prison drama, The Green Mile makes bold claims about the benevolence of the penal system, but ends up reminding us of how little ground Hollywood has made on the racial front (or, perhaps, how little ground it’s interested in making), by revealing the oddly moralized and highly conservative ethos of both Hollywood and King.

Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) presides over death row as head guard in a Southern prison, circa 1935. He takes charge of John Coffey (Michael Clark Duncan), who has been accused of raping and killing two young girls. Coffey’s gentle, simple demeanor contrasts with his seven-foot tall, massive build, as he immediately takes to calling Edgecomb “boss” and asks timidly whether the guards leave the lights on at night. Coffey is coded blatantly as innocent but, since we are offered only a flashback of Coffey cradling the girls’ bloody corpses, we’re asked to question his “true” nature.

Coffey’s miraculousness becomes clear following a scuffle between the guards and new-inmate-on-the-block “Wild Bill” Wharton (Sam Rockwell). When Coffey sees Edgecomb doubled over in the throws of a urinary infection (exacerbated by a kick in the balls), he convinces Edgecomb to come over to his cell, whereupon he grabs hold of the guard’s crotch and heals him. We soon find that, not only can Coffey heal the sick and resurrect dead rodents, but also that he’s so passive that he has no interest in being set free.

Perhaps more disturbing, despite their intensifying feelings that Coffey is innocent, the guards also show no interest in stopping his execution. Only Edgecomb shows even the slightest interest in uncovering the details of Coffey’s crime and prosecution, when he goes on an abortive mission to Coffey’s public defender (Gary Sinise), who tells him, “Niggers are like dogs.” Edgecomb appears unaffected by the lawyer’s racism, which is as much a function of the film’s rural Southern setting as it is of a very real racism that informs so much of this picture. That is, we have a three-hour film in which the sole black figure is locked in a cage throughout, except when the guards (with shotguns at the ready) let him out only for a few hours to save the warden’s ailing wife in her deathbed, and then when he’s executed.

It seems that Coffey’s gifts are currency enough to get him work as an ersatz physician healing his captors and their spouses but not enough to have him freed. Even after Coffey allows Edgecomb a view into his “heart,” no one thinks to free Coffey, who informs his captors that he’d rather be dead than live with pain of his infinite empathy.

Still, there are things you cannot take away from The Green Mile. It’s masterfully shot by David Tattersall, whose cinematography is beautiful, even moving at points. The film’s death row looks more like a cathedral or, better, a Southern chapel. Visually, this story is told patiently and gently. Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing seems slow: he lets shots linger and so, makes the script seem methodically paced. It’s sort of like listening to Enya. But the film’s visual beauty serves, really, to cover up a frustrating flashback narrative structure and underdeveloped story.

To mask its thin plot and underwritten script (I keep thinking it’s like an over-wrought X-Files episode), The Green Mile employs a cadre of actors as the principal guards, whose nice-guy affects, at the end of the day, serve to mask all that the film lacks — balls and substance. Its actor-commodities are smiling, gentle apologists for the American prison system. No matter how hard Hanks, David Morse, and Barry Pepper attempt to affect distance from their captives, they seem more like concerned fathers guarding their children, or priests overseeing a well-behaved and docile congregation, whose members look as if they’d be sitting in their cells whether there were bars or not. Even murderous class-clown William Wharton seems more comedic relief than dangerous criminal.

At a moment when the validity of the national penal system is being called into question, when privatized prisons are increasingly popular, along comes a film suggesting not only the beneficence of prison staff and policy, but the unflinching fairness of the system itself. Even as this film kills off its only black character (and let’s not forget the whole thing is predicated on his “miraculous” nature), we are assured that his execution is really a kindness, a correction of some metaphysical wrong, a psychic justice. We’re led to simultaneously mourn and celebrate the execution of an innocent man and walk away thinking justice was served.

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