Director Frank Darabont beats the Hollywood sophomore jinx with his moving adaptation of Stephen King's popular serialized paperbacks "The Green Mile." Since his first effort was also based on a King novel, "The Shawshank Redemption," maybe Darabont bypassed the whole second-feature angst. Whatever his reasoning, Darabont is back after a five-year hiatus, and the result will fill holiday moviegoers with cheers and tears.
While not a perfect film, the three-hour-long "Green Mile" comes close. At its best, this tale of a gentle giant on death row and the guards who come to believe he is innocent is emotionally involving. At its worst, "The Green Mile" suffers from clumsy attempts to be "inspiring."
Told in flashback as the painful memory of an elderly man, "The Green Mile" follows several different story lines. At its heart, though, is the relationship between Louisiana prison guard Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) and John Coffey (Michael Duncan), a black man convicted of the brutal rape and murder of two white girls. Coffey's arrival on cell block E at the Cold Mountain Penitentiary is memorable to Edgecomb for two reasons: First, Coffey is, to quote a fellow guard, "enormous." Second, his arrival coincides with Edgecomb's suffering from a painful bladder infection.
While Coffey's appearance lives up to that of a killer, his demeanor does not. The first to discover this are his co-convicts on death row, the Cajun Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter) and Native-American Arlen Bitterbuck (Graham Greene). Quiet and somewhat simple-minded, Coffey is really a child trapped in this imposing body. Without knowing exactly why, all of the guards along The Green Mile are drawn to Coffey. The sadistic new kid on the block, Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchinson), loves to torment him. His meanness reaches an evil low when he stomps to death the unofficial mascot of Death Row. But, miraculously, Coffey brings the mouse back to life.
Coffey's inability to stomach unnecessary suffering leads Edgecomb to him. Soon, Coffey has cured him of his bladder infection. As the other guards learn first-hand or witness Coffey's amazing gift, they begin to question his guilt. How can a man with such a God-given gift be a ruthless murderer? But it is 1935 in The Deep South and in their hearts, the guards know trying to clear Coffey's name would be next to impossible. "What happens on The Mile, stays on The Mile." That's the oft-spoken credo of the prison guards, but led by Hanks' Edgecomb, there is a moral mutiny afoot.
Like his work in "Shawshank," Darabont seamlessly weaves together the different stories of "The Green Mile's" many characters. But unlike that first film, "The Green Mile" works not because of his ability to evoke the relentlessly gritty reality of prison. Instead, "The Green Mile" unreels with the deliberate feel of the supernatural. Whether one labels it a "Christ-allegory" or an epic battle between good and evil, the effect is stirring. There are moments of great joy and quiet humor in "The Green Mile," as well as scenes so profoundly shocking and disturbing that even the hardest hearts will skip a beat.
Among the list of Darabont's growing talents, one must also add his casting skills. While Hanks does his usual good work, the movie belongs to Duncan's portrayal of Coffey. A former gas-company employee whose only other screen time was as "Bear" in "Armageddon," Duncan creates an indelible impression. This may be the performance of a lifetime; it is definitely the role of a lifetime. Come Oscar time, I would not be surprised to see his name among those nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Duncan shows us Coffey, simultaneously simple yet blessed with subtle shifts in inflection and gentle body language. His performance will break your heart. Sadly, though, Duncan's Coffey is offscreen more than on. As a group, all of the guards turn in terrific supporting roles. From David Morse's Brutus to Hutchinson's sadistic Percy, we grow to know what makes each man tick. "Babe's" James Cromwell also does a credible job as the prison warden; Patricia Clarkson is equally moving as his terminally ill wife who finds herself in the hands of Coffey.
While I may quibble about the movie's awkward bookended reminiscences, I cannot praise the story, the setting or the acting highly enough. Regardless of how one feels about capital punishment, Coffey's story is emotionally wrenching.
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