The Green Mile is a lot like Tom Hanks’ portrait on its advertising poster – earnest, but glazed and bloated. Writer/director Frank Darabont follows his first feature effort, The Shawshank Redemption, with a film that shamelessly takes several big swings at the Oscar fences – and misses. It ends up straining your patience (and at three hours in length, your bladder) much more than your tear ducts.
Bookended at start and finish with present day scenes and told in flashback by Paul Edgecombe (Hanks), most of the story takes place in 1935 at Louisiana’s Cold Mountain Penitentiary. Edgecombe is head guard of E Block – death row, where the Green Mile is the corridor "floored with linoleum the color of tired old limes" that leads to the electric chair, Old Sparky. Edgecombe is not particularly proud of his job – tending to men that are condemned to die – but he takes pride in the compassion and humanity he brings to their last few days on earth.
Then the world of E Block is complicated by the arrival of John Coffey ("like the drink, only spelled different"), a six foot eight, 320 pound black giant who’s been convicted of the brutal rape and murder of two young girls. Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan, Armageddon) is a gentle soul who recoils from thunderstorms and is fearful of sleeping in the dark. He claims innocence, using an enigmatic phrase: "I couldn’t help it, boss. I tried to take it back, but it was too late." Edgecombe’s initial reaction is disbelief that someone of Coffey’s gentle disposition could have possibly committed such a crime. He’s later astounded and bewildered by a remarkable power that Coffee demonstrates, and eventually forced to make a choice that affects both Coffey’s destiny and his own.
But it’s hard to be affected by The Green Mile, for it rarely offers much background on any of its characters beyond their Central Casting pigeonholes. Among the other guards, there’s a strong but compassionate type (David Morse), a cagey old vet close to retirement, a young rookie, a sadistic incompetent with a relative in a highly placed government job to protect him. Other stock characters – all drawn in thick strokes of only black or white – are introduced, used as plot devices, then abandoned. What results is a story of surfaces rather than substance, one that involves the senses but rarely touches the heart.
Adapting a screenplay from another medium is a daunting task, as anyone who’s ever quarreled with film interpretations of a favorite book can attest. With Shawshank, Darabont adapted a 100-page Stephen King novella ("Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption") and added scenes to flesh the story out to feature film length. His additions served to give the characters more complex and fully drawn personalities.
The Green Mile is taken from a much longer (536 page) King work, and Darabont has unwisely elected to spend excessive screen time on a roll call of events rather than richness of character. The result is a three-hour film that seems even longer – more chaff than wheat. The fact the Darabont also served as Green Mile producer (a role he did not play on Shawshank) perhaps also gave him additional license to be long-winded.
The lack of character development is most obvious and detrimental in the portrayal of John Coffey (J.C., – get it?) who’s presented as the moral center of the film. But without any clues to his personality beyond an imposing physical presence and apparent tenderness, the miracles he eventually performs become little more than parlor tricks enhanced by special effects.
As Director, Darabont wields a heavy hand, bludgeoning the audience by making points more often than necessary. Plot developments are blatantly telegraphed far in advance, so that when Important Poignant Scenes eventually wheeze into view, they invoke shrugs rather than sniffles. The film’s ending pushes the story even further into the arena of fantasy and magic. Hanks, Duncan, and Morse are all serviceable in their roles but never given much to do beyond hit their marks, recite their lines, and shuffle off to the next scene on Darabont’s assembly line.
The Green Mile is not a terrible film, just a tedious and disappointing one. Darabont has forgotten that stories are only interesting when we understand and care about the people that populate them. Like a promising young athlete whose career is cut short by injury, it makes us wistful for what might have been.
– Bob Aulert