The Green Mile (Frank Darabont, 1999)


Tom Hanks (Paul Edgecomb), Michael Clarke Duncan (John Coffey), David Morse (Brutus Howell). Screenplay by Frank Darabont. Directed by Frank Darabont. Rating: 18. Running time: 189 minutes.

In my younger days – not of life but of film watching – I would soak The Green Mile up as a masterpiece. Its greatness would be a fact unworthy of even being questioned. And yet with time has come cynicism, and some things make me apprehensive that would never do so in the past. Amongst those alarm bell ringers are set-ups of the following sort: an old man is reminded by a piece of art of his past, starts crying, and sits down for tea with a woman before diving into a story – an apocalyptic introduction if you ever need one. I also get worried when I’m thrown into a death row prison ward, and as guards I have Tom Hanks, who’s obviously going to be unfittingly warm; a tall, stern rock of a man called ‘Brutus,’ and an absolute bastard of a slimey midget with a smirk on his face so big that it’s evident from the beginning that he’s going to be a hell raiser. The Green Mile has all of this, and it also has a black man so mysterious as its focus of attention, that when we’re shown his alleged crime of murder the film shouts out at us from the very beginning to resist accepting appearances, and to look out for the twist and the truth.

All of these things bug me about The Green Mile. It even bugs me just how much it is a theatre film, by which I mean there is little distinctively film-like about it. The cinematography is straight forward, the music minimal. There’s the odd scene hanging on special effects, necessary to exemplify the bizarre, spiritual power John Coffey has, but ultimately the entirety of the film’s power is derived from its acting and story. It’s almost like it was performed as a play, with cameras well placed to capture the action.

The performances here are perfect – three hours is an excellent amount of time to develop a character on one location, especially when they’re all as distinctive as this. The story is also undeniably a powerful one, so much so that my apprehension, ultimately, becomes phoney. It’s not a case of whether or not I want to let it sweep me up in its melodrama – The Green Mile simply does it because I’m human. It’s almost impossible not to react with heaps of emotion to what we see here. A spiritual giant must be taken as a given, alongside the possibility of miraculous healing. But once this is assumed, herein lies injustice, pain, evil, and then also the flip side of hope, virtue and pure joy.

The Green Mile is set in the deep South (it is, to all intents and purposes, a classic Southern Gothic piece), and with the pastures of Georgia unfortunately comes a fair sized dose of Christianity. Some of the morals here I can’t help but feel are suspect. It feels dubious to say the least to see Coffey, for so long a healer, also become a harmer, deciding for himself who deserves to suffer despite his apparent God-given role of alleviation. Hanks’ character, Paul, also has strange ideas on why he’s lived to be 108. These things, like the so prophetic but stereotypical set-up, are significant, but they have to be set aside. I wish The Green Mile wasn’t hellbent from the outset on moving me. But that was its intention and it is also its achievement. My younger self was right to soak it up.

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