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Sunday, May 8, 2016

THE GREEN MILE -- Movie Review by Porfle

Four years after 1994's THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, Frank Darabont once again tapped master storyteller Stephen King (in addition to his own screenwriting talents) for another prison tale, THE GREEN MILE.

I recall the novelty of reading King's tale when first published not as a lengthy single volume but as a series of small paperbacks released in serial form a la Charles Dickens. I was skeptical when I heard that this riveting but highly unusual tale would be turned into a movie, a skepticism that Darabont proceeded to dash into smithereens by creating what I consider to be his finest and most thoroughly accomplished work to date.

The story takes place on Death Row in a Southern prison circa 1935, where head guard Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) strives to treat the condemned men with a fair amount of dignity and compassion until their date with "Old Sparky." Brawny, reliable Brutus "Brutal" Howell (David Morse) is his right hand man, aided also by the other guards Harry Terwilliger (Darabont regular Jeffrey DeMunn) and young Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN).

Paul's biggest headache, besides the occasional psycho prisoner such as fiend killer "Wild Bill" Wharton (Sam Rockwell, GALAXY QUEST, GENTLEMEN BRONCOS), is a cruel, cowardly weasel of a guard named Percy Wetmore, brilliantly played by one of my favorite actors, Doug Hutchison (MOOLA). As the spoiled nephew of the governor's wife, Percy threatens to tattle on Paul whenever he doesn't get his way or is caught abusing the prisoners. It's Hutchison's best role since that of inhuman super-creep Eugene Tooms on "The X-Files."

While his connections could secure any job he wishes, Percy remains on Death Row because he aspires to be lead guard during an execution. Anxious to be rid of him, Paul grants him this opportunity. But it turns disastrous when Percy deliberately botches the electrocution of a hated inmate, turning it into a horrifying, agonizing ordeal (which Darabont stages with exquisite aplomb) both for him and the mortified onlookers in the film's most grueling, deliciously Grand Guignol sequence. (The SPFX as the ill-fated inmate's smoking body jerks, spasms, bursts into flames, and finally roasts alive are gruesomely convincing.)

While all this horror is going on, the Green Mile--named for its faded green linoleum--receives its strangest guest yet, a monstrously huge but mild-mannered black man named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), convicted of murdering two little girls but seemingly unable to hurt a fly. Duncan, whose only previous film credit was in ARMAGEDDON, sought the services of an acting coach for the role and this paid off handsomely when he delivered a bravura performance as the doomed behemoth with the mind and heart of a child.

The film plunges full-bore into the supernatural when it's discovered that Coffey has miraculous healing powers which he uses to bring life back to the pet mouse of fellow condemned man "Del" Delacroix, an eccentric Cajun (Michael Jeter), after Percy cruelly stomps on it. (The mouse, "Mr. Jingles", will be a crucial element of the story in unexpected ways.)

After Coffey heals his painful bladder infection as well, Paul suddenly gets a wild, farfetched idea upon which he's willing to stake not just his job but his very freedom--that perhaps, somehow, John Coffey might be able to heal the dying wife of his boss and friend, Warden Hal Moores (James Cromwell). But if Coffey is capable of doing this, how in the world can Paul preside over the man's execution? Especially now that he's convinced Coffey is actually innocent?

It's a dilemma to haunt the viewer for some time to come, as impeccably rendered by Darabont with the skills of a master screen craftsman. Here again he tells the story unhurriedly and in a formal, old-school fashion that evokes the satisfaction one feels delving into a fine novel. Beautifully designed sets and another ideal prison location, this one with a distinct Gothic atmosphere, combine with gorgeous cinematography to create a film whose period ambience is intoxicatingly effective.

Hanks is at his best here, as is Morse, both portraying the kind of good and stalwart men you'd want in such positions. (Ditto for actors DeMunn and Pepper as their fellow guards.) Duncan gives the performance of his career and earned the Oscar nomination he received for it. James Cromwell and Patricia Clarkson, as Warden and Mrs. Moores, help make their strange encounter with John Coffey unforgettable, while always likeable Bonnie Hunt provides endearing moral support and domestic romantic interest as Paul's wife, Jan.

Gary Sinise (FORREST GUMP), Eve Brent, and SHAWSHANK alum William Sadler appear briefly as well, and in the film's wraparound segments, an older Paul Edgecomb is portrayed by none other than the great character actor Dabbs Greer in one of his juiciest and most high-profile roles ever.

As in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, Darabont and King present prison inmates who are more like members of a social club than hardened criminals in order for us to more easily accept and identify with them. The first one to walk the Green Mile is Graham Greene's Arlen Bitterbuck, who gets one wonderfully poignant scene in which he wistfully recounts his happiest moment in life to Paul. 

 Michael Jeter is profoundly effective as Del in his scenes with Mr. Jingles the mouse, which never fail to have me blubbering like a baby even more than the film's powerful finale. As Wild Bill, Sam Rockwell is both repellent and perversely hilarious. Harry Dean Stanton is also funny in a smaller role as a prison trustee.

THE GREEN MILE ultimately becomes not only a highly absorbing tale of life on Death Row from both sides of the bars, but also a fascinating and moving morality tale that mines some of our deepest and most profound emotions. Darabont achieves a perfect balance here between the story's darker, uglier aspects, which manage to hold us in morbid fascination even at their most repellent, and the joyously uplifting passages that radiate with the compassion, empathy, and love which human beings sometimes display in the unlikeliest of circumstances.




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