The face of Hollywood today is the face of power. Director's power. The power of special effects. Together, they can create wonders, but if unchecked they can also lead to things that are not so wonderful, things that are done simply because the power to do them is there. Witness "The Green Mile."
That there's a good story in "The Green Mile" is not much of a surprise. Stephen King's serial novel mixed new age miracles with age-old "behind these walls" prison melodrama cleverly enough to sell 20 million copies and have its six parts last a total of 93 weeks on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list.
What is a surprise is how deeply, almost fatally buried that story is in three hours and eight minutes of ultra-leisurely storytelling by a filmmaker too fond of his own work to cut a frame, and too powerful to be amenable to changing his mind. Not even the excellent, elevating acting of Tom Hanks as the head guard on death row and some pleasing supernatural moments can make up for a film that moves with the suffocating deliberateness of a river of molasses.
"The Green Mile's" writer-director is Frank Darabont, whose last film was another adaptation of a King prison story, "The Shawshank Redemption." Its seven Oscar nominations (including best picture) notwithstanding, "Shawshank" revealed a filmmaker with a sure instinct, even a gift for the obvious. Similarly, though the dramatic beats in "The Green Mile" are highly polished, they also couldn't be more pronounced and predictable.
The heart of the problem (and one of the causes of the film's length) is the overly earnest attitude Darabont takes toward the material. "The Green Mile" sold as many copies as it did not because its themes are lofty and profound but because it's a page-turner. What we have here is basically pulp material (albeit of a high order), and pulp material doesn't gain in effectiveness by being treated as if it were written by Henry James.
"The Green Mile's" other unpleasant surprise is what it makes you endure in the way of on-screen horrors. Three executions via electric chair are shown, and while none of them is exactly pleasant, the death of Edouard Delacroix (Michael Jeter) is gruesome and stomach-turning beyond reason. How many lovingly constructed and very realistic shots of a man's head consumed by flames does any sane person need to experience?
Yes, this sequence is critical to the plot and comes directly from the book, but so is a spate of illness-related profanity by a female character that, presumably out of a desire not to offend, is alluded to but not reproduced. Just because special effects technology and a director-as-brutalizer attitude make it possible to fry the audience's sensibilities as well as the victim's body, is that sufficient reason to do it? Making the visuals as graphic as possible doesn't make the film richer and more meaningful; if anything, it's so horrific it throws you right out of the movie and makes it more difficult to get reinvolved with the narrative.
"The Green Mile" opens in a more bucolic spot, a Southern retirement home where longtime resident Paul Edgecomb is something of a mystery to both staff and fellow boarders. One day, a glimpse of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film on TV triggers a teary breakdown, and Paul tells his friend Elaine things he hasn't spoken about in 60 years.
Back we go to 1935, where a younger Edgecomb (Hanks) works in Louisiana's Cold Mountain Penitentiary as the guard in charge of the Green Mile, named for the walk from death row to the electric chair because the cement floor is painted a glowing lime green. That's the year Edgecomb was suffering from an excruciating urinary infection and the year that John Coffey (Michael Clark Duncan) took up residence on the Green Mile as the convicted killer of two little girls.
Coffey turns out to be a giant of a black man (7 feet tall in the book and wonderfully played by the 6-foot-5-inch, 300-plus-pound Duncan), someone whose staggering size is matched by the timidity of his man-child behavior. Coffey's considered somewhat simple-minded by the guards (David Morse is especially effective as Brutus "Brutal" Howell) but he turns out to have inexplicable powers (some involving swarms of exhaled insects left over from "The Mummy") that have consequences both terrible and wonderful.
There are other prisoners on the Green Mile, the most notable being the unfortunate Delacroix, who makes friends with a performing mouse named Mr. Jingles who's known for his ability to roll an empty spool of thread, and William "Wild Bill" Wharton. A smiling psychopath (convincingly played by Sam Rockwell), Wharton is so thoroughly evil that his very presence complicates things on the Mile.
Wild Bill's opposite number on the law and order side is Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchinson), an unapologetic sadist who is protected from the consequences of his misdeeds by being the favorite nephew of the state governor's wife. "He's mean, careless and stupid," Edgecomb says, "a bad combination in a place like this."
All these characters and lots more, including Warden Hal Moores (James Cromwell) andEdgecomb's wife, Jan (Bonnie Hunt), don't dare to have more than a single dimension. Ordinarily that's not a problem for this kind of a story, but then again ordinarily this kind of story doesn't put the excessive demands on our time this particular one does.
The only exception to all this is Paul Edgecomb, and Tom Hanks is the reason why. An actor who effortlessly adds fairness, decency and humanity to any role he plays, Hanks makes even a character in a melodrama like this seem real, complex and convincing. His work elevates "The Green Mile," giving it a level of interest and integrity it wouldn't otherwise have. It can't completely rescue this bloated film, but it's certainly the best reason to see it.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence, language and some sex-related material. Times guidelines: Graphic scenes of an execution gone awry are exceptionally horrific.
'The Green Mile'
Tom Hanks: Paul Edgecomb
David Morse: Brutus "Brutal" Howell
Bonnie Hunt: Jan Edgecomb
Michael Clarke Duncan: John Coffey
James Cromwell: Warden Hal Moores
Michael Jeter: Edouard Delacroix
Castle Rock Entertainment presents a Darkwoods production released by Warner Bros. Director Frank Darabont. Producers David Valdes, Frank Darabont. Screenplay Frank Darabont, based on the novel by Stephen King. Cinematographer David Tattersall. Editor Richard Francis-Bruce. Costumes Karyn Wagner. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Terence Marsh. Art directors Steve Saklad, Mark Zuelzke. Set decorators Dorree Cooper, Elaine O'Donnell. Running time: 3 hours, 8 minutes.
In general release.