Mystic mood, moral message dominate powerfully emotional 'Mile'
"The Green Mile" begins with a little deja vu. Like Tom Hanks' last mid-Century, Oscar-baiting drama, "Saving Private Ryan," it's bookended by a modern framework that finds an old man reluctantly reminiscing about a difficult year of his life, more than half a century ago.
Because of the familiar faces and the similar prestige posturing, this platitudinous structure invites a little eye-rolling as Dabbs Greer (Reverend Alden on "Little House On the Prairie"), playing the aged Hanks, begins to spin what becomes an engrossing three-hour yarn about a year of extraordinary horrors and miracles on death row in a Louisiana state penitentiary.
Hanks plays prison guard Paul Edgecomb, an unjaded joe in charge of death row who treats people on both sides of the bars with humanity and civility. Set in 1935, the central story opens with the arrival of a kindly colossus of a condemned killer named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan).
Everyone on the row -- prisoners and guards alike -- quickly realize there's something strangely tranquil and mysterious about their new neighbor, who sometimes speaks in mystical riddles though he seems to have the mind of a child. But it's not until he cures Paul's raging bladder infection with the touch of his hand (and a touch of odd humor) that anyone becomes aware of the power he possesses.
John Coffey is a healer and a tender soul, and soon Paul begins to question his murder conviction -- for the grizzly rape and knifing of two 9-year-old farm girls.
Like the prison picture masterpiece "The Shawshank Redemption," this film is adapted from one of Stephen King's surprising and stirring non-horror novels, published serial-style in 1996. Like "Shawshank," it was also adapted by director Frank Darabont, and with just as much honest, fervent inspiration and vividly realized characters -- even if they are too broadly drawn.
Coffey is the virtuous innocent -- like a less hapless Lenny from "Of Mice and Men" with a few extra IQ points. Paul is your now-customary, upstanding Tom Hanks everyman.
There's a few other good guy prison guards (David Morse, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn) and two bad apples -- Percy (Doug Hutchison), a sociopathic guard with a Napoleon complex, and Billy, a psychopathic inmate. Both are exaggerated, inhuman horrors that come to deserve their inevitable, Stephen King-style fates.
Then there's Graham Greene and Michael Jeter as martyr prisoners, whose crimes are never even mentioned, so they can be marched to the electric chair while still likable for the movie's brusque, underlying lesson about the horrors of capital punishment.
In the course of the film Darabont stages two step-by-step execution rehearsals (to get the audience on edge) and three prisoner electrocutions -- one that goes on for several unflinching and horrifying minutes because the condemned man wasn't wired up correctly.
No more subtle are the subplot about the warden (James Cromwell), whose wife is suffering terribly from a brain tumor (gee, with a faith-healing prisoner in a lead role, I wonder where that's going!) and the freedom-is-in-the-mind metaphor of a smart little mouse that becomes the prison block mascot.
But even for all its obviousness, "The Green Mile" plays out like an engrossing, leisurely novel. It meanders though several story tributaries (the John Coffey plot is only about one-fifth of the movie), and although you're not always sure where you're going, the journey is absorbing.
Darabont creates an atmosphere of rigid, perpetual anticipation by minimizing the prison conditions (this death row is clean and quiet) to let the human drama take center stage, and his actors rise to the occasion. Every member of the cast delves deep into their character -- even those whose parts are not all that unique (Hanks and Morse both wear their moral fiber like a comfortable old suit).
But forget the Oscar buzz for Hanks. If anybody from "Green Mile" will see a nomination, it's Duncan, who taps into his heart for his role as the meek but monstrous miracle-worker -- although Hutchison also deserves recognition for his hate-filled portrayal of compulsive malignancy and gorging insecurity.
The film loses its compass in the last hour, with several out-of-character turns. But by that point the it's too involving to be soured by its shortcomings.
Familiar Stephen King elements start kicking in, with patience-tempting, isn't-it-eerie, supernatural goings on that probably read better on paper than they translated to the screen.
The dialogue becomes heavy with metaphysical shash ("We found each other in the dark.") and Forrest Gump-ish blather ("Why dey's angels, boss! Just like up in heaven!"), and an all-too-convenient solution to the fact that the movie's moral center is about to be executed.
I also could have done without the pointless and abominable, last-minute flashback to the death of the two little girls Coffey was convicted of killing -- not to mention the mystical-magical, modern day epilogue.
But even when it falls back on the contrived, "The Green Mile" still holds on to the audience on a emotional level that continues to resonate long after the credits roll, which by itself is reason enough to recommend the movie.