The Green Mile

Retro Review: The Green Mile (1999)

The text below the break is part of a review originally published on June 16th, 2000.

Here are some updated thoughts:  First off, I apologize for the length of this review.  Apparently it got away from me when I originally wrote it.  Notice the line above said it was “part” of a DVD review, meaning I exorcised a good portion of the article.

After reading through it again for the first time in, ohhhhh, 15 years I notice I make no reference to Stephen King‘s source material, the serialize novel of the same name.  Though I’ve read many early King novels, I stopped consuming his tales around Needful Things, so I have no basis of comparison.  Tom Hanks clearly had an amazing run in the 90s.  It seems just like yesterday (no it doesn’t) that I was watching him in Bosom Buddies and the worse than awful Mazes and Monsters . . . that cautionary, nay, shit stirring movie about how Dungeons & Dragons (implied) will spur you to think your fantasy world is reality and cause you to commit suicide.  Not Hanks’ fault, but I’m sure he wishes he could erase it from his acting portfolio.  Thankfully his failings in the 80s were handsomely atoned for in the 90s, including The Green Mile.

This review contains minor spoilers.

The Green Mile starts out with a dream sequence, a posse of white men with guns running through the meadows, obviously hunting for someone.  The dream is truncated as an old man’s eyes snap open.  He is presented as a likable old man . . . he has a good rapport with his caretakers and fellow residents at the retirement home.  Behind his eyes, though, is a silent sort of sadness, something that can’t be described but is definitely present.  One afternoon, a movie he sees on television triggers open the floodgates of memories he had obviously been trying to avoid for many years.  His breakdown leads him to confide in a friend his past and his memories.

He reveals himself to be former prison guard Paul Edgecomb, Captain of Louisiana’s Cold Mountain Penitentiary E Block, death row.  Edgecomb says they used to call it “the Green Mile,” because the floor was the color of faded limes.  We flash back to 1935, depression era Louisiana, the backdrop for a story, a fairy-tale almost, about a special inmate and an amazing power.

This story, which at times loses itself in its preaching about human nature and occasionally clumsy religious overtones, quickly takes a backseat to what becomes a very rich, very detailed character-driven drama.  Although it is told with style and grace, and it has more than its share of really great scenes and exchanges, the underlying plot isn’t that complicated and occasionally even seems telegraphed.  In a lot of movies, deferring the plot to the performances would have been a very costly in the star department.  Here, because of the cast of characters, it actually improves the movie and allows you to focus on the people that the story revolves around.  Make no mistake: there is a definite and very tangible story and plot, it’s just not that complicated.  This movie is about humanity, though, and the humans are the crux of the film.

Barry Pepper plays Dean, the youngest of all the E Block guards.  It is obvious that Edgecomb’s methods and philosophy on the Mile have caught on with Dean, who does everything he can to make the inmates feel human.  When compared to his performance as Private Jackson in Saving Private Ryan, Pepper shows encouraging range and emotion as an actor.  Dean’s devotion to his work and his silent idolization of Edgecomb and Howell come across clear as a bell in this inspired yet understated portrayal.

David Morse (Contact) is second in command ‘Brutal’ Howell.  Brutal is Edgecomb’s right hand man.  The two think almost exactly the same way; much of their communication is through subtle, silent looks or body language, and the ability to pull this kind of communication off is a benchmark of a solid thespian.  Morse is one of those actors who you see in a bunch of movies, but you never remember where.  His on-screen chemistry with his partners works really well.  Like Edgecomb’s other guards, Brutal is humanistic and very, very professional.

One of the most engaging characters is Percy Wetmore.  Doug Hutchison, known more for his small screen roles (The X-FilesMillennium), had a tough job on his hands here.  Percy is a grown-up version of the cousin you always hated at your family parties: the one who would kick you in the shins, laugh until you socked him one, and then run and tell his mom so you got into trouble.  Percy is the nephew of the first lady of Louisiana, and he makes sure everyone knows it.  He wields this influence more than brazenly, to everyone’s thorough disgust.  The most fascinating thing about this character (and Hutchison’s portrayal) is his ability to make you hate him more with each passing second.  Percy is despicable when we meet him, and every frame he takes up he becomes more and more so.  This character teeters on caricature a now and then, but Darabont’s delicate touch always leads him back.  As usual in these sorts of movies, this character gets his comeuppance in a very gratifying way.

Michael Clark Duncan puts on an absolutely prodigious performance as inmate John Coffey (don’t let those initials be lost on you, remember what I said about clumsy religious overtones).  Duncan seemed to really take this character by the throat; this seemed more like channeling than acting.  He understood perfectly that Coffey was somewhat of a simpleton, and that his more complicated emotions and such would have to be communicated non-verbally, because Coffey wouldn’t have the intellectual facilities to express them otherwise.  This is a problem for many inexperienced young actors (as Duncan is for the most part), as this is exactly what leads to overacting.  His childlike innocence and gentle giant demeanor are spectacular, and it seems almost like he was born to play this role.  On a side hand, he’s cartoonishly gargantuan.  Darabont uses camera angles and light tricks to make him appear to be about 7’5” and 425 lbs.  A man that big playing a role this subtle and this demanding so early in his career is truly remarkable.  His stellar portrayal is at least in small part a credit to Darabont’s direction.  I just hope that Hollywood realizes that Duncan is far too talented to pigeonhole him into a constant stream of gentle giant roles.

The Green Mile posterOver the years, Edgecomb walked The Mile with a variety of cons.  He has never before encountered someone like John Coffey, a massive man convicted of brutally killing a pair of nine-year-old sisters.  Coffey certainly has the size and strength to kill anyone, but his demeanor starkly contrasts with his appearance.  Beyond his simple, naive nature and a deathly fear of the dark, Coffey seems to possess a prodigious, supernatural gift.  Edgecomb begins to question whether Coffey is truly guilty.

The Green Mile

Director: Frank Darabont
Starring:  Tom Hanks, David Morse, Michael Clarke Duncan
Genre:  Fantasy / Drama
Media:  Film, 189 minutes
Rating: R
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $287 million, worldwide
Year: December 10, 1999
4 out of 5 stars

The final and most pivotal main character is Paul Edgecomb, played by Tom Hanks.  Paul is the consummate professional prison guard.  Though never bossy, he is indisputably the boss; he’s the kind of man anyone would like to work for.  He is always in control, both of his block and of his men.  He deals with problems quickly and justly, but he isn’t afraid to get rough.  Edgecomb makes sure that no one loses sight of two very important, yet sometimes neglected, points.  The first seems to be the pervading belief that while the inmates are criminals and awaiting the execution of sentence, they are still human beings.  They should be treated with dignity and respect at all times, and guards need to set that example.  Paul, and for the most part the rest of the guards, are all very considerate of the feelings and comfort of the inmates, each man trying his best to sympathize with the kind of pressure they must feel.  This treatment commands the respect of not only the prisoners, but his coworkers as well.  E Block, and anywhere in prison, is not a place of judgment.  Judgment has already been passed.  Their job at E Block is to monitor the prisoners as they wait for the inevitable.  Hanks is, as usual, absolutely perfect; he is easily one of the best actors of our time (check out his resume since 1990).  He delivers his lines with perfect southern pace and tone (if not a perfect accent), and his emotional face is easy to read, conveying every bit of feeling that an actor can find.  He’s the kind of actor who makes everyone around him better (just ask Frank Darabont).  I really enjoyed the chemistry between not only Hanks and the guards, but between him and Bonnie Hunt.

Beyond these five characters, there is a host of extremely absorbing periphery characters played by top-of-the-line character actors. James Cromwell is underused as Warden Hal Moores, husband to a terminally ill young wife.  Equally underused is Bonnie hunt, who plays Janice Edgecomb, Paul’s loving and concerned wife.  She also provides us with a few well-placed moments of genuine brevity, which this movie needed.  Sam Rockwell is inmate William Wharton, whom you never like, but sometimes laugh at.  Michael Jeter plays a guilty yet penitent, likable and respectful Eduard Delacroix.  It’s a large landscape of characters populating a very large movie.

One of the major complaints about The Green Mile when it was released was the length of the film, just about three hours from credit to credit.  Here’s my problem with using that as a detracting factor: no one can point out exactly where the movie goes from relevant scene to superfluous fluff.  No one has ever said to me “This scene shouldn’t be there, that scene was too long.”  It seems like it would be almost impossible to edit any of the content out and maintain the overall feel of the film, the overall weight.  Each scene is masterfully crafted and obviously meticulously planned, each scene understandably integral within the scope of the film.

My main complaint is that at about 2:35, this movie goes into unabashed, unapologetic Oscar™ bait mode.  Though the actors dutifully carried the film over this somewhat lethargic final act, some scenes are just far too sappy and fumble at evoking emotion.  Instead of tugging at the heartstrings, Darabont decided to go at them with a hammer and hope to strike a chord.  He almost seems like he is ordering the viewer to cry, and for me, that deflates a lot of the emotion he shoots for.

Another criticism I have is that certain points I thought significant or interesting were left out of the movie.  What were the things that flew out of John Coffey’s mouth (that could have been explained in the featurette)?  How did Percy’s punishment work exactly?  Why did he react as he did, instead of getting brain cancer?  What was John doing in the woods before the posse finds him?  Why did no one else make a connection to Wild Bill and the two little girls?  Mostly these are minor details, but the story is good enough to distract you from ‘nit-picking.’

The Green Mile is a fantasy movie, remember that.  In watching this film, try and remember that it isn’t Shawshank (very few movies are), even though it has a similar setting.  Don’t go into The Green Mile looking for a fast-paced racetrack of a movie.  It’s more a drive down a lovely country road, deliberately paced so that you don’t miss any of the nice scenery.  If you like a decent story (if at times a little predictable) with phenomenal characters, and you aren’t overly concerned about a great extras package, then The Green Mile is for you.

Words © 2000-2021, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

1 Comment

  1. I feel like this is a great review, even though I’m reading it as a person who has READ The Green Mile and Shawshank Redemption, but not seen the movies. Even though this is a movie review, a good chunk of it reads honest to the source material. I always find it extra weird to hear certain questions that weren’t addressed in movies getting asked in these cases and being able to answer them purely because I come from the written version, which always has the benefit of more information and what happens in character’s heads. This review gives me some hope going into the movie as there isn’t much that couldn’t fit to the very excellent novel 😉

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