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Hound dogs baying, wildflowers bending to the wind, angry white men in shirt-sleeves carrying shotguns, a swatch of cloth clinging to a tree branch. The details are all a little too familiar. You know you’re looking at yet another recreation of the scary Old American South, specifically, you’re looking at the set up for a lynching. This first scene of Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile can make you cringe: the dogs pick up a scent, the men splash through a stream or mud, and then the camera, tracking over the ground slowly, discovers the malefactor, centers him in the frame. He’s a black man, wailing, seated before a log, with two little white girls’ bodies to either side of him, their dresses torn, their tiny heads bloodied to red pulps.
It’s an awful moment, by any standard, a mix of history and horror. And then the movie backs off it almost instantly, transporting you to another time and place, a close-up of an old white man’s eyes, as they squint with pain, maybe mimicking your own response to what you’ve just seen. You soon learn that what follows is this man’s story, even though he wasn’t a member of that search party. Rather, Paul Edgecomb (played in this framing scene by Dabs Greer) was head of security at a Louisiana prison’s death row, where the black man, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), was incarcerated and electrocuted. And when Paul, now living in a nursing home, agrees to tell a friend what happened, it becomes clear that the film actually has a compelling mystery at its center, that is, how did the black man’s story become the white man’s?
The Green Mile doesn’t stage the drama quite so directly. As writer-director-producer Darabont’s second adaptation of a Stephen King prison novel, it mixes science fiction and melodrama, creating something that’s both more spectacular and sentimental than its relatively subtle predecessor, 1994’s Shawshank Redemption. Where the first movie explored an interracial friendship to get at the complex combustions of prejudice, trust, and redemption, the new one pretty much lays its lesson out for you. And where the first film was a sleeper hit, this one comes to theaters primed for the holidays, when viewers are supposedly looking for uplift and respite, equipped with a manifest moral, a well-financed promotional campaign courtesy of Warner Bros., a six-part series in Entertainment Weekly and a multiple-Oscar-winning movie star’s name above the title.
This star is, of course, Tom Hanks. He plays Paul in 1935, the year when he comes to know the prisoner John Coffey, whose initials tell you something about his role in the film’s ethical and spiritual scheme of things. Paul’s a decent guy, married to Jan (the ever-warm Bonnie Hunt) and perpetually struggling quietly with the moral ramifications of his terrible job. He and his team, including a chief assistant nicknamed Brutal (David Morse), strive to make their charges feel human until the end. When John arrives, everyone including fellow inmates Del (Michael Jeter) and Arlen (Graham Greene) is stunned by his enormity (seven feet tall) and his gentle, naive, even slightly retarded manner. If at first they seem a bit cowed by the prospect of handling a man of this size, Paul and Brutal exchange relieved glances when John asks them to leave a light on in the prison at night, because he gets “scared a the dark.”
It’s clear at this point that John is one of the film’s good guys, an innocent caught in a world of violence and injustice. The bad guys are equally conspicuous, being a malicious white inmate called Wild Bill (Sam Rockwell) and a guard named so very ignominiously Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison, a.k.a. The X-Files‘s liver-sucker Tooms). Percy’s a whiny and sadistic snot, and because he’s the governor’s nephew, he’s able to act out his malignity and ignorance without much consequence. While Paul and John are plainly linked in their goodness, Percy and Wild Bill’s outrageousness make it easy to dislike them, to see them as deserving all the supernatural evil that will be visited upon him.
Blatant as this initial moral outline is, the film persists, making John’s miraculous presence increasingly awesome for Paul and his colleagues. While the story alludes vaguely to such literary models as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird (in which the noble black man instructs “open-minded” white folks by his example), it also seems to present John as an historical anomaly: he seems to come from nowhere and there’s not another black character in sight, despite the film’s setting in rural Louisiana. John’s ordeals define him: he has no life other than what he means for Paul, a white man consumed by guilt and sadness. John absorbs that guilt, literally, sucking the evil and illness out of anyone or anything he touches. In Paul’s case, John sucks out a urinary tract infection, convulses in pain, then releases the pain as a swarm of digitized flies, buzzing and dissolving as they rise to the ceiling (very biblical, very apocalyptic).
For all its attention to John’s victimization and exacting an emotional response from its audience the film takes a surprisingly schizophrenic view of capital punishment. While on one hand, it highlights the cruelty of the electric chair (one prisoner has a terrible time, when the procedure goes wrong and his whole body smokes and fries and pops), but on another, it allows that just punishment can be meted out against obvious miscreants by those with the power and insight to do so.
Because John is so childlike, he’s easy to understand as pure, virtuous, and nonthreatening, a character with whom his white captors might sympathize. His last wish in the film (not in the novel) is to watch Top Hat, and as the screen is filled with the image of Ginger Rogers’ white feather gown and Fred Astaire’s supreme grace, against a grand white setting as the soundtrack plays Astaire singing, “Heaven… I’m in heaven.” Cut to John’s broad smile and tear-tracked cheeks: he’s found his peace, in this world where the white folks are angels and he’s condemned to be their savior.