Judge Clark Douglas much prefers the purple kilometer.
Miracles happen in the most unexpected places.
"I just can't see God putting a gift like that in the hands of a man who would kill a child."
Facts of the Case
Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks, The Terminal) is a Depression-era prison guard working on death row. Every year, Paul and his co-workers walk a variety of hardened criminals down "the green mile" corridor to their execution. One day, a huge African-American prisoner named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan, The Whole Nine Yards) arrives. John has been convicted of murdering two young girls, but Paul can't comprehend how such a sweet and gentle man could have committed such a heinous crime. As Paul investigates the matter, he not only discovers the truth about what really happened but also begins to realize that John has been hiding some unusual supernatural powers.
Though Frank Darabont's Stephen King adaptation The Shawshank Redemption didn't exactly light up the box office when it landed in theatres in 1994, over the next few years it gathered a following on home video and soon become one of the most well-regarded films of the 1990s. Given that film's skyrocketing reputation, it was only natural that Darabont should seek to duplicate its success. He selected The Green Mile as his next project, yet another King-written short story set within the confines of a prison. Ironically, while Shawshank had initially been given a lukewarm reception before becoming accepted as a modern classic, The Green Mile was initially greeted with great enthusiasm (including Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Sound) before many determined that it was merely a middling attempt to recapture the magic of Darabont's previous film. So, how does Darabont's lengthy prison drama hold up over a decade later?
For this reviewer, the answer is "reasonably well," though The Green Mile does indeed fall short of the standard set by The Shawshank Redemption. For all of its graphic violence and unusual supernatural elements, The Green Mile is a fundamental exercise in old-fashioned filmmaking. Content issues aside, this often feels (for better or worse) like a film that might have been made 40 or 50 years earlier. The film unfolds at an unhurried pace, the editing is relaxed and steady, the performances favor old-school theatricality over method-y naturalism, and the screenplay is a neat, clean, classically constructed affair.
The supernaturally-charged tale of John Coffey is what most people remember about the film, but the movie is at its strongest when focusing on the minutiae of life on death row during the Depression. Every step of the electric chair process is outlined in careful detail for us over the course of the film; simple facts that somehow amplify the emotional weight of the actual executions. While the film certainly has its share of dark moments (there's one execution scene in particular that is genuinely horrifying), Darabont grants the film's setting a certain sense of calm and serenity. As Hanks' character notes, it's important that a place as naturally grim and stress-inducing as death row be as peaceful as possible under the circumstances.
The Green Mile is a film that brings unforced warmth to a downbeat setting, and Tom Hanks brings similar qualities to his gentle performance. Hanks is an unflappable lead and provides a stable center for a film loaded with colorful supporting turns. Michael Clarke Duncan's Oscar-nominated turn is tremendously effective; he brings a touching childlike fragility to a questionable role (more on that in a moment). James Cromwell has another compelling supporting turn as the increasingly beleaguered warden, while pros like Jeffrey DeMunn (The Mist), David Morse (Body of Proof), and Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan) are stellar as Hanks' fellow guards. In addition, players like Sam Rockwell (Moon), Harry Dean Stanton (Inland Empire), Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves), Gary Sinise (Of Mice and Men), Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April), and William Sadler (The Shawshank Redemption) all deliver memorable work in their relatively small amounts of screen time. My favorite performance comes from Michael Jeter (The Polar Express), whose beautiful turn as the sheepish Eduard Delacroix ranks as one of his best.
The Green Mile arrives on Blu-ray sporting a solid 1080p/1.78:1 transfer which preserves the film's nostalgic, almost sepia-toned look. The image seems hazy and a little soft at times, but most of that is due to the filmmakers' artistic intentions. Brighter scenes look excellent for the most part, but darker scenes suffer from a bit of black crush. Flesh tones are mostly warm and natural. A measure of natural grain is present throughout, giving the picture a pleasing filmic look. Audio is sturdy from start to finish, though it only hits room-rattling levels on a couple of brief occasions. Dialogue is clean and clear, the film's sound design is impressively nuanced and Thomas Newman's bittersweet score is strong without becoming overpowering. Supplements are ported over from the DVD release: a commentary with Darabont, a 6-part documentary entitled "Miracles and Mystery: Creating The Green Mile" (102 minutes), a "Walking the Mile" featurette (25 minutes), some deleted scenes, a Michael Clarke Duncan screen test, some makeup tests and some trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Green Mile has been attacked by many as one of the most flagrant cinematic examples of what Spike Lee has termed the "Magical Negro" stereotype, and it's hard to argue with that. John Coffey is a simple-minded African-American man with astonishing powers whose only purpose is to make the lives of his white captors a bit better (he's even willing to lay down his life to prevent Hanks and friends from risking their careers by letting him go). While much of this comes from the fact that the film intends Coffey as a Christ figure (even the initials are the same), the depiction of the Coffey character is unquestionably the most troubling element of the film.
Bothersome in a different way is the slimy Percy Wetmore character played by Doug Hutchison (I Am Sam). Darabont has historically embraced cartoonish, one-note villains (consider the hysterical Marcia Gay Harden performance in The Mist or the silly Michael Rooker character in The Walking Dead), and the obnoxious Percy is no exception. The man becomes incredibly irritating very quickly and refuses to demonstrate even the slightest shred of human decency; he's just too relentlessly grating to be convincing.
Finally, I can't help but feel the film doesn't really need a running time of 188 minutes. The creaky bookends feel superfluous despite their cutesy revelation, and certain stretches of the film feel needlessly padded.
I have mixed feelings about The Green Mile, but its merits are just strong enough to overcome its liabilities. It's worth a look, though this Blu-ray release doesn't do much to warrant an upgrade from the special edition DVD set.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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