Though it's far from perfect, Judge Bill Gibron still holds this adaptation of Stephen King's literary "gimmick" in the highest of cinematic regards.
Walk a mile you'll never forget
It was viewed as a massive literary novelty. Stephen King, undoubtedly America's favorite writer, was about to release his latest work in a style very similar to that of another publishing giant—Charles Dickens. Back before books were viewed as a commercial commodity, authors used to run their latest efforts, chapter by chapter, in high-profile magazines. The response to said would allow publishers to gauge the viability of an actual separate printing and, thanks to superstar scribes like Dickens, long-form fiction found its financial footing. By the time King decided to try it, however, periodicals had long stopped being a source of new fiction. Instead, trade paperbacks became the modern equivalent of magazines, a chance to test a title in an easy, inexpensive manner. Stephen King's The Green Mile became the first serialized novel in several decades and was an unlikely smash. One dedicated fan was Frank Darabont. Having scored a major motion-picture coup with his elegant adaptation of King's "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," he was actually approached about bringing this new novel to the screen. Initially saying "No." Darabont relented when he read the first few installments. Even before King had completed the book, Darabont was on board. The result was another stellar example of King's narrative nuance meshed with Darabont's detailed filmmaking. While perhaps not as noteworthy as Shawshank, The Green Mile remains one of duo's definitive triumphs.
Facts of the Case
Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks, Splash) and his crew are used to trouble on the Green Mile, the stretch of cells that make up Death Row at their Depression-era prison. What they aren't used to are miracles. But the minute a gigantic black murderer named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan, Armageddon) arrives, odd things begin happening. Hampered by a bad bladder infection, Edgecomb is "cured" when Coffey grabs him. Then a small mouse, whom fellow convict Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter, The Fischer King) has befriended, is magically brought back to life when sleazy guard Percy Wetmore (Douglas Hutchinson, Millennium) tries to kill it. As the execution date looms, Edgecomb is convinced there is more to Coffey than his crimes. Indeed, he feels the man may be innocent. But convincing everyone else of this fact, especially in the racially intolerant South of 1930s, may well be impossible. And the sad fact is, no matter how many wonders he manages to manifest, Coffey has been sentenced to death. The Green Mile will be his final stop on the road of life, despite the good locked inside his massive frame.
The caveats that accompany Frank Darabont's amiable adaptation of Stephen King's spiritual prison novel are fairly obvious—at least initially. Clocking in at almost three hours, and taking almost every element from King's Dickens-defined serialization into account, Darabont attempts the almost impossible—a cinematic reconfiguration of an author's actual thoughts. King has commented that Mile represents (at least in his opinion) the best version of one of his vehicles ever, accurately recreating everything the author had in his head when he wrote the book. But this doesn't mean that The Green Mile is perfection. Instead, it walks a weird line between faithfulness and flight of fancy that almost implodes upon cinematic contact. You see, certain concepts play better in one's mind, and the notion of a gigantic black man with a messianic streak (he's not known as John Coffey for nothing) healing the sick is one of them. So is a decent Death Row guard stricken with a stoic conscientiousness (and a bad bladder infection). There are definitely parts that play perfectly to the camera—Eduard Delacroix and his magic circus mouse Mr. Jingles, and the dueling villainy of Percy Wetmore and Wild Bill Wharton. But the big issue with any King creation is how the narrative balances the internal within the external. It's the biggest hurdle any filmmaker has to overcome, and many fail miserably when attempting it.
Luckily, Darabont has practice prancing around King territory. From his first short film The Woman in the Room to the much-beloved The Shawshank Redemption, the filmmaker has found incredible success inside the Maine scribe's literary universe. Even in the realm of rumors, Darabont is connected to other King projects like The Mist. There is no doubt that, along with DePalma, Reiner, and Cronenberg, Darabont has one of the better handles on what makes a Stephen King story click. All throughout The Green Mile, there are touches that make us understand that the two appear connected—at least creatively. Darabont's set pieces—the failed execution of one of the characters, the curing of Warden Moores' wife—look like literal illustrations of King passages. Similarly, Darabont has the undeniable ability to cast actors who wholly encompass the characters King creates. From Tom Hanks take on Paul Edgecomb to Michael Jeter's Delacroix, no face is out of place here, no persona bucking up against the concepts created by either man. This makes Darabont's efforts a little off-putting at first. Indeed, seeing something so accurately translated throws our imagination into a tailspin. When we read a book, we instantly graft places and faces to our internal storyline. Darabont's are so good that they instantly erase our own ideals and demand that they be considered as permanent replacements.
Still, for some, Darabont has his problems. Pace is one of them, considering that both Mile and Shawshank push the standard Tinseltown mandate of 90-minute movies. As a director, he loves to languish over scenes, giving them maximum time to make their many points. He believes in the inherent drama of silence and works well within the singular setting of a two-character conversation. He is not interested in building suspense from the juxtaposition of cuts or circumstances—King is a much more thrilling read—and allows moments to speak for themselves without a great deal of filmic fanfare. In essence, Darabont is a filter, as strong or as static as the material moving through him. The Majestic, which Darabont made just before The Green Mile, suffered from a story that was more symbolic than simple. In essence, Darabont wanted to create some grandiose statement about heroism and home, but neither notion was well-developed or well-described. Some could argue that the same applies to Shawshank, that instead of dealing with the realities of prison, he mixed non-erotic male bonding with too many monologues about freedom, bringing both to a head inside a standard escape story. Of course, this doesn't describe how the Morgan Freeman/Tim Robbins vehicle became a time-honored classic (at least in the view of IMDb readers), but the concept of cinematic possession does seem to illustrate Darabont's strengths—and weaknesses—as a director.
The Green Mile exemplifies this perfectly. King's story does have its incredibly minor flaws, especially when you consider that John Coffey can cure malignant brain tumors, but can't make people understand his own personal plight. Hanks gets a healthy dose of Coffey's psychic reality, yet he can't manage to pass that along to anyone other than the man who's preparing to pull the switch. Secondly, Mr. Jingles is a manipulative sympathy grab, a "guaranteed to make 'em weep" cog in an otherwise carefully controlled storyline. He is not really necessary, except as a catalyst for Percy's personality and the ending's emotional resonance. Similarly, Percy is just evil incarnate—a character without a single redeeming element except the standard King notion that the plot will eventually serve him a sensational comeuppance. Darabont is also guilty of a couple of creative mulligans. He does something very strange by tying Wild Bill directly to John Coffey's case, making the injustice incurred by the big black man that much more intolerable. He also treats the death of the little girls—the murders that bring Coffey to Death Row in the first place—as a montage moment afterthought. He never establishes the harsh brutality of the crimes. Instead, he simply uses them as symbols, then moves along. If anyone is looking for reasons why The Green Mile doesn't feel as forceful as The Shawshank Redemption, for an explanation why, even with stellar acting, the film feels less than substantive, any one of these miscues can be cited.
But it is actually easier to praise what is, without a doubt, a moving and monumental cinematic achievement. Darabont may be slow in his approach, but the results are routinely spectacular. Sure, Hanks could have had something other than a bladder infection for Coffey to cure, but the moment between the men, with its mixture of intimacy and inspiration, helps us fully appreciate the otherworldly dynamic at play. Similarly, when we see Warden Moore's reaction to his wife's experience with John, James Cromwell's performance reminds us why movie acting is so potentially powerful. Again, this is one of those rare examples of casting perfection, with not a single role relegated to a B-list actor or actress. Darabont implicitly understands performance and he gives his thespians room to breath and live. Michael Clark Duncan, burdened by the almost impossible task of playing ignorant innocence inside supernatural superiority, moves between the two elements effortlessly. Similarly, Michael Jeter makes Eduard Delacroix the kind of man you'd except to see in a Depression-era jail cell—a simpleton with a sinister undercurrent boiling just below the surface. Hanks holds it all together in a way clearly missing from his recent turn in The Da Vinci Code. It's in a role like this that his superstar status is earned—and assured.
But this is still Darabont's baby from beginning to three-handkerchief end. Like a musician with a mighty motion-picture instrument at his disposal, this director tunes up and takes on a striking symphony of horrifying highs and sentimental lows. The Green Mile is one of King's better stories, since it centers on a series of events happening to a single group of people. It doesn't go for the epic like The Stand or stray way over into the realm of the paranormal like so many of his stories. Instead, this is a balanced tale of faith and redemption cast inside a look at corrupt people playing God with the lives of convicted killers. To argue over elements of racial insensitivity and era-avoided PC platitudes misses most of the point. Stephen King wanted to tell a fable about hope coming in confusing, sometimes frustrating packages. Frank Darabont took it and channeled it expertly. While some may fault it for pre-planned poignancy and argue for a sterner editing hand, there is no denying that something rather special occurs whenever Frank Darabont and Stephen King come together. Want proof? Just imagine The Green Mile in the hands of somebody else, someone more Hollywood than honorable. The wrecked results would more than speak for themselves. While not a masterpiece, cinematic symbiosis doesn't get much better than this terrific tall tale.
After an original release in a nearly bare-bones presentation by Warners, Darabont and crew step up to deliver a near-definitive Special Edition treatment of this fine film. From a purely technical standpoint, the sound and vision are fabulous. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean and crisp, loaded with corrected colors and defining details. Darabont does have a way with wide-open vistas and artistic locations, and the composition and framing he employs are captured perfectly in this excellent transfer. While some may grouse that the movie is now spread out over two DVDs (two hours on disc one, one on disc two), the added space helps sell the film's cinematic qualities. Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is amazing, loaded with lots of directional elements and atmospheric touches. Whenever there's an execution, you are sure to hear the horror from all of the channels, and the spatial ambience of the Mile itself is presented expertly in the overall sonic soundscape.
But it's the bonus features that will have fans eager to take the dreaded double dip here. Repeating the original making-of documentary (entitled "Walking the Mile"), this new two-disc set contains a Darabont commentary, a new behind-the-scenes featurette (entitled "Miracles and Mystery: Creating The Green Mile"), make-up tests for Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan, and various other production pieces. For many, the Darabont discussion will be cinematic manna, and the conversation is very insightful indeed. Using the three hours to joke, describe in detail, and make phone calls to people involved in the production (including KNB's Greg Nicotero), Darabont acknowledges that he once said he'd never provide such an extra for one of his films. Doing it more as a favor to fans, he offers up lots of important information, as well as a few delightful snippets of gossip, over the course of his recollections.
Some of the material is repeated in the "Miracles and Mystery" documentary, but it's still intriguing to hear Darabont dissect his own work. With almost everyone participating in the new backstage featurette (oddly, only Doug Hutchinson, who played Percy Wetmore, seems to be missing from the new material), we get a great overview of the production. Hanks still has that horrible hairdo, circa a certain Code, but everyone else looks amazingly spry and ready to talk. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit unearthed is the acting coach hired to help Michael Clarke Duncan find his footing as John Coffey. While it happens often in Hollywood, such a secret is rarely revealed. Yet here the man is, discussing working with the relative acting novice. It's just one of the many amazing facts you'll find when digging through this treasure trove of added content.
Call it Shawshank backlash or a kind of King overload, but The Green Mile has taken its critical lumps over the last seven years. Like most highly anticipated films, reality redefines the potential acceptance, and time allows the flaws to become more visible and viable. What was seen as Oscar-worthy a half-decade before now gets a collective groan from a fan base flustered by the movie's many well-done manipulations. Like King's position within the literary realm (some would even say that the successful author has no place in comparison to other great writers from the past), Darabont's second prison play is discounted, disregarded, and decried as an overlong work of amiable arrogance. Sadly, all of this animosity fails to take into consideration The Green Mile's real significance. Removed from all the whining and bellyaching, detached from the comparison to other King works, this is a marvelous, masterful film that takes its time to tell a really well-honed tale. If you want speed and efficiency, action and suspense, you definitely need to look elsewhere. But if you don't mind "living" with a movie for a good three hours, this is one Mile you'll be glad to walk.
Not guilty. When Mile is considered along with his take on The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont once again proves that no other director can successful tap into the Stephen King canon like he can.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Full-length Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Frank Darabont
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