The Green Mile
First screened and reviewed in February 2000
Director: Frank Darabont. Cast: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Doug Hutchison, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Sam Rockwell, Bonnie Hunt, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn, Patricia Clarkson, Gary Sinise, Harry Dean Stanton. Screenplay: Frank Darabont (based on the novel by Stephen King).

Photo © 1999 Warner Bros. Entertainment
Boy, is there a lot of urine running through The Green Mile. Not one but three major characters have scenes or entire subplots related to the evacuation of their bladders. Despite its bizarre abundance in the film, however, urine is unfortunately not the only acrid substance running through this Stephen King-derived story. Most critics have asserted that The Green Mile's themes have something to do with bigotry and/or the death penalty, which may well be the case, but not in the sense of liberal apologies or progressive social stance-taking that these reviewers have unanimously assumed. In fact, The Green Mile is a deeply racist movie, though clearly none of the filmmakers seem to think so. Moreover, the film manages to stage both a horrifying scene of a convict's electrocution and a quiet speech by a death-row guard regarding his feelings of guilt without really taking issue with capital punishment at all. The film reminds me of the Dorothy McGuire character and her socialite circle in Gentleman's Agreement, whose subliminal anti-Semitism, that film made clear, was no less injurious or excusable merely for being subliminal, for failing even to recognize itself as a form of prejudice.

Briefly, the film is a Depression-era story about a seven-foot-tall black man named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) who is sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two small girls in a Southern town. Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) is the head guard on the prison hallway, nicknamed "the green mile" for the color of its floor and the finality of its destination, where men sentenced to death spend their final days. All of the inmates under Edgecomb's watch (with the exception of Sam Rockwell's "Wild Bill" Wharton) seem surprisingly sedate and innocuous, but John Coffey, who cannot sleep without nightlights and seems forever on the verge of tears, is characterized so preciously that we cannot doubt he will be exonerated—to us, if not to the penal system—of the crimes he is alleged to have committed. Moreover, as high school English teachers never tire of observing, the innocence of martyred fictional characters bearing the initials "JC" must never be questioned. Indeed, as we first discover about an hour into The Green Mile, this particular JC bears mysterious powers of healing, as well as monumental capacities for sympathy and forgiveness, that make his Biblical heritage even harder to ignore or, for filmgoers who prefer not to be beaten over the head, to put up with.

Stated compactly, and sorry if it spoils a little bit of plot, the final two hours of The Green Mile find Coffey healing three characters—Paul Edgecomb, the warden's terminally ill wife (played my High Art's luminous Patricia Clarkson), and the pet mouse of a fellow inmate—from various states of disease before he is finally put to death in the electric chair. By that point, Edgecomb has offered Coffey in exchange for his good deeds the chance to escape both prison and certain death with the aid of the bewildered, admiring guards. Coffey declines their offer because, as he states, he wants to be put to death. The same powers that enable him to take away hurt from other people's (and mice's!) bodies require Coffey himself to live in a constant state of torment, feeling the pain of the world "like pieces of glass" inside his head. Executing Coffey, as King and director-screenwriter Frank Darabont would have it, comprises an act of mercy for a human subject whose whole, enormous body is shot through with the absorbed, amassed pain of the human race. Strangely, in the act of permitting Coffey to die, his powers for enduring and relieving pain, as well as a previously undisclosed gift for unnaturally long life, are communicated into the bodies of Edgecomb and, of course, the mouse, who have both lived for 100 years by the time we arrive in the Saving Private Ryan-style frame story, as emotionally cloying as it is formally unwieldy in a film that is already far too long.

In what way is this film too long? All of the performances, from the leads down through David Morse's laconic prison guard, Doug Hutchison's hateful and mulish one, and Bonnie Hunt's scattered appearances as Edgecomb's wife, are tidy and professional, if in no case exceptional. David Tattersall's photography is similarly clean and serviceable, as are all of the film's visual and audio accoutrements. What makes the film nearly impossible to endure, then, is not any incompetence of filmmaking but a story that increasingly runs afoul of basic ideological principles and its own superficially stated themes. To avoid revealing its seriously troubled narrative core, The Green Mile has to keep piling on subplots and incidents that make the film seem softer and more genteel than it really is.

I have already offered one compact way of reading The Green Mile's story, but let me offer another, fairly concise summary. John Coffey, a black man in the 1930s South, and most likely a sharecropper or migrant worker though no one bothers to tell us so, is sent to prison for a crime we cannot imagine he would commit. A racist defense lawyer working in a society only two generations removed from slavery ensures his capital sentence, though the character as rendered possesses a recurring stammer and a Gumpish, "child-like" attitude that also prohibit him from any attempt at explaining his story or insisting on his innocence. Once Coffey arrives in the prison, the humane, white supervisor of his cell-block comes to believe in his innocence, mostly because Coffey relieves the supervisor's bodily pains in a way that suggests to him an essential if not holy guiltlessness.

Moving on, this guard (we'll call him Edgecomb) makes a rather perfunctory attempt to uncover the particulars of Coffey's case, but his first efforts in this direction are thwarted, and so he gives up. By contrast, both Edgecomb and his colleagues show considerably more imagination, resolve, and risk-taking in carting Coffey out to the home of their boss so that his gifted, "mystical" body may prove of some use to an ailing white woman hovering at death's door. It should be noted that the alleviating of this woman's pain requires Coffey to undergo a fantastic amount of pain himself. However, despite this fact, we observe no scene where the guards ask Mr. Coffey to participate in their plan; he is merely enlisted, the necessary tool in their mission of saving one of their own. More and more, Coffey's reputation among his guards seems to increase in direct proportion to his usefulness, and they come to regard him less as a man in jail (or as a man in pain) than as a kind of supernatural quantity, an improbably gentle giant who provides a strange but unquestioned repository for their pain.

Near the movie's climax, Edgecomb finally asks Coffey what it is like to absorb so much suffering. Coffey, who is still not characterized as someone who speaks his own mind (or, perhaps, has a fully adult mind to be spoken), can provide an answer only by placing his hand on Edgecomb's skin—the entire narrative Coffey can "tell" about his life is contained and passed through his conspicuously bounteous, muscular, and scarred flesh. Through this strange device, Edgecomb learns with some certainty that Coffey committed no murders, and he subsequently offers to release Coffey from his fate. Coffey, however, makes his first attempt at eloquence, to the effect that his life is unbearable, that misery is the central, constitutive structure of his whole body, and that his execution would comprise an act of empathetic understanding. The guards cry at Coffey's electrocution, but you better believe they perform it anyway.

For your consideration. One: the South of the 1930s comprises a fairly specific geographic locus within the history of American race relations, and a vaguely allegorical story about a black man being shuttled about to heal, with utter and self-hurting generosity, the pain of white people may or may not be in, shall we say, remarkably good taste. Two: at all points in America's history, capital punishment has been assigned out of all possible proportion to black inmates over white ones, strongly suggestive of racist practices institutionalized within the penal system, such that a story which climaxes in a black man begging his guards to execute rather than exonerating or releasing him is again an astoundingly dubious narrative move. Three: no amount of storytelling embellishment—and these include period visuals, cute animals, supernatural special effects, the argument that life is so unbearable for a black man that death is preferable to freedom, or even a carefully placed shot in which a movie projector behind JC's head appears to give him a "halo"—alter the fact that this story depends on questionable, even reprehensible foundations.

In the end, almost everything in The Green Mile amounts to some sort of a distraction from the troublesome threads at the story's center. To take an example outside the thematics of race, the grotesque, terrifying electrocution of the Michael Jeter character only seems to protest the death penalty, as people keep suggesting it does. In fact, the screenplay insists that the insupportable degradation of Jeter's body and the degree of his suffering were the effect of a botched execution, indeed a sabotaged one. No one says anything about the horror built into the very fact of ever killing another human being, and by the picture's end, we are asked to grasp electrocution as in some way an act of benevolence. It is no accident that after each of the film's three execution scenes, Darabont ushers us quickly back into scenes involving that ingratiatingly capable mouse. Maybe we won't consider the implications or transparent machinations of his storytelling if he amuses us with stupid pet tricks?

The last shot of the film is another of these falsely comforting close-ups on the mouse. At that same moment, Paul Edgecomb, living well beyond his hundredth year as the inheritor of John Coffey's cosmic endowment for long life and existential torture (and how are we supposed to read that?), utters the final line of his voice-over narration. "Sometimes," he says, "the green mile can seem very long." The Green Mile seemed to me very long, unless you're measuring for ideological principle or narrative honesty, in which case the picture comes up dismally, self-deceivingly short. Grade: D–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Clarke Duncan
Best Adapted Screenplay: Frank Darabont
Best Sound: Robert J. Litt, Elliot Tyson, Michael Herbick, and Willie D. Burton

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Clarke Duncan

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