The Green Mile Review
It is a proven impossibility to review The Green Mile without mentioning a certain other film. After all, when you make your directorial debut with a prison film based on a novel by a well known horror novelist, and then choose to follow said triumph up with another adaptation of the same author's work, then comparisons are inevitable. Especially when said novelist has only written two novels set in a place of incarceration. So, let's get the comparison out of the way right at the start - this film is a fascinating companion piece to The Shawshank Redemption. It may not be the same spectacular success, but it is a very worthy film in its own right.
The story of The Green Mile is a relatively simple one for a three hour plus movie. Paul Edgecombe (Tom Hanks) is in charge of the green mile - essentially the death-row of his local prison. His job is to organise the guards as they look after the inmates and nurse them through their final months. They are a very close and well organised team, who empathise with the prisoners and treat them with respect. That is apart from one key member - Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchinson), the nephew of the governor who has a sadistic side and wants nothing more than to see one of the prisoners cook first hand. However, before we meet any of these characters, the film opens with the disappearance of two young girls who are subsequently discovered, dead and bloody, in the arms of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan). He is hysterical, crying out that he tried to take it back, but he couldn't. He is incarcerated for double murder and arrives on the Mile to take his place amongst the other prisoners.
It very soon becomes clear, however, that Coffey is a man-child, someone who is utterly incapable of murder. In fact, he gradually reveals he has supernatural powers - curing Edgecomb's urinary infection and reviving one of the other inmate's pet mouse who is killed by Percy. Eventually, he is used by Edgecomb in an attempt to cure his bosses' wife, who has an inoperable brain tumour. The guards on the mile subsequently face an uncomfortable dilemma.
The Green Mile may well be set in similar environments to Shawshank Redemption but the in fact the two films are very different beasts indeed. The former may be fantastical in its resolution but the majority of the film is grounded in a realistic milieu, these events could actually have happened. Events on The Green Mile are very different. The film deals with something supernatural, a man with other-worldly powers. As such, the film has quite a collision of ideas. We have a man who can heal and perform other worldly magic, in a setting which is harshly real - where people are being put to death for heinous crimes. There is no attempt, here, to hide what they have done. In Shawshank the committed crimes are barely referred to - here the characters freely own up to their deeds and accept the consequences in this film. This also means that it can be very hard to find characters to truly root for, apart from Coffey himself. The characters may be more rounded, but they are not as sympathetic as Red or Brooks.
However, what is without question is the quality of the performances on offer during this film. Hanks has rarely been better in a truly old-fashioned type of leading man role. He is never showy, playing his role with quiet authority which means that even though he is a familiar face, this never distracts you from totally believing his character. Michael Clarke-Duncan in his first leading role is truly immense, and I am not referring to his stature. Again, it is a role that could have ended up hackneyed and over the top, but it is a masterpiece of understated performance selling you emotion with a simple glance or shift in posture. That he has never gone on to be a truly great actor is surely to do with typecasting due to his muscle-bound build. A man capable of a performance such as this surely deserves to be given more of a chance to stretch his talents.
These two roles may be the leading ones, but the strength of the film is the performances throughout the whole cast. Like with Shawshank Darabont proves himself adept at handling actors. Whether it is Sam Rockwell, Graham Greene, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, or any other of the cast - every performance has this wonderful quality about it which totally sells the character.
However, to me The Green Mile just doesn't quite reach the heights that Shawshank did, and my feeling is that this is down to the director. The film is very long, and there are some pacing issues that effect the production. Whereas Shawshank had a story and a resolution, The Green Mile is far more concerned with character development than it is with story. Many have discussed exactly what the aim of the piece is, and like any piece of art (and art is most assuredly what this film is) multiple interpretations are possible and even encouraged. For me, however, the piece is a religious allegory - John Coffey (look at those initials) is an innocent man who is about to make an ultimate sacrifice. Furthermore, Edgecomb knows he is innocent but washes his hands of any responsibility towards saving him.
Any film that spends three hours plus concentrating on developing character is going to stretch the patience a little bit, and there is simply not enough variety or change of scenery here to reward the viewer. The vast majority of the action is set on the mile, with very brief excursions to external sets. A sub plot which involves Edgecomb carrying out his own investigation into Coffey's alleged crimes is excised completely, and the bookends of the film have their emotional impact diminished slightly by the fact that a key aspect from the book has been lost.
The film's failings, though, are perhaps also the film's strengths. It is often heard that they “don't make 'em like they used to” but The Green Mile does hark back to an earlier era of film-making. An era when films took their time to make a point, where character and acting were important, and explosions and CGI were non-existent. Darabont followed The Green Mile with The Majestic, a film that tanked at the box office, yet has much in common with his death-row epic. Both have flaws, for sure, but if you are looking for a slow, rich character-developing movie, where your emotions will be manipulated in a cynical way, but you will weep nonetheless, then either film will suffice. The Green Mile, however, is probably just a little too self-indulgent to truly be classed as a success. It is most certainly worth seeing, and there is much to enjoy - but I don't think it is a film with as much rewatch value as The Shawshank Redemption. It simply doesn't make the human spirit soar.