[box cover]

The Green Mile

Warner Home Video

Starring Tom Hanks, David Morse, Michael Duncan,
Barry Pepper, and Jeffrey DeMunn

Directed by Frank Darabont

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The Green Mile is one of the most anticipated DVDs of the season, just as it was one of the most awaited movies of the holiday screen season, and for fans of The Shawshank Redemption, the film gets the job done. As a male weepy; as a Stephen King adaptation; as a prestige, Oscar-nominated construction, The Green Mile fulfills its end of its implicit cinematic contract. All that being said, however, one must add that the film has a politics that are sure to make sensitive skins crawl.

The plot is simple and linear, as befits something derived from a King novel, originally serialized in paperback. Told in flashback by rest home resident Paul Edgecomb, the tale relates how his younger self (Tom Hanks) worked on death row in the '30s and encountered there a unique individual, convicted child killer John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), who has the power to heal and even restore life. While preoccupied with a pampered sissy bully (Doug Hutchinson) and a rabid maniac (Sam Rockwell), Edgecomb also manages to sneak Coffey out of the prison with the help of his crew (Barry Pepper, David Morse, and others) so the giant simpleton can cure the prison warden's wife of cancer. In the end, despite these and other miracles, and though justice is enacted on both the bully and the maniac thanks to Coffey, he still has to be executed (logically speaking, the most confused part of the movie). Edgecomb has lived with the consequences of these actions into old age.

Stripped of its Oscar sheen, The Green Mile is a dire amalgam of Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones and The Greatest Story Ever Told. On the one hand it represents the a very '50s racial liberalism, in which African-Americans are benevolent children who are OK as long as they are kept in their place. On the other hand it is fundamentally religious, in both senses of the term.

It seems director Frank Darabont has been toiling in the mines of Stephen King retreads for a while now, and after two major feature films his most immediate linking theme — besides Oscar-mania and a dependence on novelist King — is an obsession with tall people. In The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont cast lanky Tim Robbins as the poor fool locked up in a Maine prison in the 1930s. In The Green Mile he casts character actor Michael Duncan as the behemoth with a heart of gold (and contrives to make him seem much taller than he actually is).

Visually, the two films look very different. Shawshank has a grittier, more realistic style. Green Mile, especially in its interiors, has the spare, focused, dynamic quality of the old EC comics. On the other hand, Darabont is credited with writing both films himself, establishing the foundation for credentials as an auteur, despite what seems to be a relatively low output and a reliance on the pre-digested texts of others. But in fact, Darabont has been active in the movies since 1981, and almost 20 years is a long time in a cruel industry that does not forgive failure, or even temporary absences. One must admire him at least for surviving.

One way that Darabont seems to have survived is by picking his friends well. He has enjoyed the support of a series of mentors, being an early associate of Chuck Russell, and like many other successful directors Darabont cut some of his cinematic baby teeth on an Elm Street movie. He briefly came under the Spielberg umbrella by writing some of the Indiana Jones shows (and later working on Saving Private Ryan). But his most important mentor has been Stephen King. Darabont has directed no less than three King pieces, including a short that was broadcast on PBS in 1983, and which also focused on someone incarcerated — in that case a dying woman.

Darabont's main theme seems, rather obviously, to be prison. Besides the two big features, a TV movie he wrote (Black Cat Run) has a prison setting, and incarceration of one kind or another seems to have a allure for the writer-director. Even the non-explicitly penal films are metaphors for imprisonment: being buried alive, the prison of a malformed body in Coppola's Frankenstein adaptation (which Darabont helped write), the prison-like hotel in the mini-series version of The Shining (in which he only acted). It is an easy metaphor, but one that audiences respond to.

Darabont has also stuck obsessively to one genre. Almost all of his films and TV shows have been in the fantasy field. But if he has become the premiere mainstream prestige interpreter of King, it is probably because he adapts the non-horror stories, which are more likely to attract a greater portion of the viewing public. Darabont seems to be drawn to the most crowd-pleasing elements in the King aesthetic; he emphasizes the sentimentality of the work over the suspense or horror. He wants to make male weepies, which in essence means male-oriented films that women want to see, too.

Height is not a frivolous approach to King's work. As a tall, gangly, awkward person, the famous multimillionaire author has always stuck out in a crowd, first for socially painful reasons, and then later for the inhuman level of his fame (his success is so uncanny that John Carpenter was able to make a rather funny horror comedy, In the Mouth of Madness, speculating on the basis for that kind of achievement). King's world is that of the 1950s and Darabont embraces it, ultimately to his detriment. King is a child of the Eisenhower era. He is obsessed with bullies, with social approval, with high school hierarchies, with the pop culture that kids from the '50s experienced. As the victim of bullies, he also drifted toward respite in an easy liberalism — manifested in The Green Mile as a portrayal of a black man as a simple soul with a noble spirit that shows dignity under oppression, a creature singled out by God for a special gift. This is Stanley Kramer country. If the King-Darabont liberalism is rooted in vague, well-meaning films such as The Defiant Ones and Of Mice and Men, this approach also continues to form the basis for successful movies because the American commercial cinema naturally gravitates to that easy form of "feeling" that seems like thinking.

For all Darabont's efficiency, however, this is workmanlike cinema, the kind that appeals to the prejudices and inchoate beliefs of the mass public — in a higher form of justice, in an afterlife, in a racial equality that is not particularly equal. Yet Darabont seems to take it all very seriously, and he ends up having his name on the credits of movies that feature remarkable ensemble acting: Robbins and Morgan Freeman in Shawshank, and Tom Hanks, David Morse, Barry Pepper, and Jeffrey DeMunn in The Green Mile. If Darabont has not visually or narratively aspired to more in a career that is both long and short at the same time, he at least knows his limitations and mines cunningly the thin if abundant vein of his talent.

— D. K. Holm

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