movie review by
Gary Johnson


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The Green Mile
Stephen King's dissatisfaction with the various film versions of his novels has been well documented. A few films have avoided his scorn, such as The Shawshank Redemption (based on a King short story), but for the most part, King hasn't been happy with how Hollywood has modified his works for the big screen. Television has emerged as the ideal venue for creating relatively faithful filmizations of King's works (e.g., Storm of the Century and The Stand) with the mini-series format allowing a novel to stretch over several evenings and total six hours or more of air time.

It has been over four years (an eternity in "King" time) since Hollywood has tackled one of King's major novels, the last being Dolores Claiborne in 1995. Since then, Hollywood has made do with King's short stories (Apt Pupil) and pseudonymously penned tales (Thinner, written as Richard Bachman). Now comes The Green Mile, based upon a serialized novel by King. The director of The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont, has been entrusted with the filmization.

The resulting movie moves like a mini-series as it lingers over minor characters and tangential events. While television gives King's novels time to meander, on the big screen, the digressions tend to accumulate in burdensome heaps. The Green Mile contains several extraordinary scenes, but at three hours in length, it's one of the most absurdly-overlong movies ever made.

Another Christmas '99 release, Man On the Moon, tells the story of Andy Kaufman's life in less than two hours. Even Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, which encompasses dozens of characters and storylines, is less than three hours. These are serious movies that tackle some marvelously complex issues (particularly so of Magnolia), but The Green Mile is basically a tall tale that revolves around the magical healing capabilities of a death row inmate at Cold Mountain Penitentiary.

Among the handful of storylines present in The Green Mile, the most important one focuses on a mountain of a man named John Coffey. "Sounds like the drink, only it's spelt different," he says. Played by Michael Duncan (who starred in Armageddon), John Coffey is a seemingly gentle and simple man: "Do you leave the light on at night?" he asks. "Cause I get pretty scared in the dark--'specially if it's a new place." However, he has been convicted of murdering two girls, who were found horribly mangled in his arms.

Tom Hanks stars as Paul Edgecomb, the head guard of death row. He's suffering terribly from a bladder infection: "It feels like I'm pissin' razorblades," he says. But after John Coffey lays his hands on Paul, the infection completely disappears. Paul doesn't see any indications that John Coffey is capable of the crimes that he has been convicted, so he starts looking into John Coffey's background. However, no one can explain where he came from or how he came to be near the girls. Nonetheless, as the arresting sheriff (Gary Sinise, in a brief role) says: "One seldom sees a less ambiguous case."

As long as the story stays focused on John Coffey and Paul Edgecomb, The Green Mile is a frequently powerful and magical tale. However, the movie would be relatively short if it completely focused on John Coffey. He's more of a good-natured bear than a man. So the movie also gives us several tangential stories. Michael Jeter stars as a death row inmate who befriends a mouse. James Cromwell stars as the warden. His wife has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Sam Rockwell stars as a hyperactive, vicious inmate called "Wild Bill." Doug Hutchison (who you might remember from his appearances as Eugene Toombs on Fox's The X-Files) plays a sadistic guard named Percy Wetmore who is just itching to see an execution up close.

The purpose of these characters is largely to help pad out the story and give it extra weight, sheerly by virtue of accumulated screen time. The story of the mouse begins promisingly, as one day a particularly brave mouse emerges from underneath a storeroom door and walks down the middle of death row. But eventually, once the mouse ends up in Jeter's hands, it becomes nothing more than a plot device waiting for its cue. But the most annoying digressions revolve around Percy as he torments the inmates and the guards. While the other guards (Barry Pepper, David Morse, and Jeffrey DeMunn) play some of the most sensitive and gentle guards in history, Percy becomes the lone bad guy in the mix, as he crushes a man's fingers with his night stick, threatens to stomp on the mouse, refuses to help the other guards when "Wild Bill" goes on a rampage, etc. Without Percy, the story would have little tension, so he exists as a convenient obstacle that Edgecomb (Hanks) and the other guards must frequently hurdle.

The resulting movie is extremely mechanical, but it isn't without power. It contains effective personal scenes between Edgecomb and his wife (Bonnie Hunt), and it contains delightfully over-the-top pyrotechnics courtesy of John Coffey. The latter scenes are played in glorious excess, for when John Coffey attempts to heal, light bulbs tend to explode in rains of sparks and embers.

Director Frank Darabont dutifully tries to capture as much of King's novel as possible, but this is a case where remaining faithful to a novel has the effect of burdening the drama. The Green Mile is not a complex movie, but it's a bloated movie. With Tom Hanks in the leading role, The Green Mile gains some respectability and some rationale for its length, but even Hanks and the strong direction of Darabont can't turn this simplistic fable into anything more than a pleasant way to wile away a complete afternoon or evening. Maybe that should be enough. But getting through three hours of such lightweight entertainment is like eating out and only being served cake.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]