Whether The Green Mile is a great or at least a good film, I can’t decide yet. I feel lost.
It’s not as if I had trouble sitting through it. Even at three hours long, the movie has a measured pace that makes the length less of an issue.
It’s not as if I was bored. Acting this good and moviemaking this solid is always worth watching.
If I am not in love with this film, again, it’s not for its lack of trying. Frank Darabont, a writer-director who has taken a personal stake in making well-told films of offbeat Stephen King stories (this is his third, after The Shawshank Redemption and the early-’80s short film The Woman in the Room), knows what he’s doing.
In The Green Mile, the story is direct, the humor works, and it all stays on a human scale as events grow more fantastical (this story is, in part, a retelling of what happened to Jesus Christ).
I know this film worked on the audience I was with: there were tissues on the floor by the end.
Tom Hanks – solid as always – is Paul Edgecomb, a prison guard who works on Death Row at a Louisiana penitentiary in 1935. Among the men condemned to die under his watch is Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan of Armageddon), a giant man found guilty of murdering two young girls yet who immediately strikes the guards as too gentle to be a killer.
As time goes on, and Coffey turn out to be not only innocent, but even more special than he first seemed – he is able to take away people’s pain and send it somewhere else – Edgecomb and the guards are driven to take drastic actions to make the most of this gift.
The Green Mile is striving towards simple truths about life and how hard it can be for love and gentleness to prevail in the world. It might seem after the film ends that it took too long to reach those simple truths, but you don’t feel that while watching it.
Part of the strength of Darabont is that he’s willing to be old-fashioned. Shawshank reminded me of a ’90s version of a Frank Capra film – like Capra and his alternate reality in It’s A Wonderful Life, Darabont can successfully hint at ugliness he doesn’t completely show – crossed with the work of George Lucas, who’s a friend of Darabont’s. It’s part of the power of Shawshank, and part of what made that film so hopeful and satisfying. We saw just enough of how Andy DuFresne’s spirit pushed against the walls of that prison for us to feel the rush and joy when he did escape.
Darabont is up to something a little different this time, but I want to avoid saying too much about what he’s doing here. You’ll find out. But in a way, The Green Mile is about not escaping. The result is a little less reassuring then the wish fulfillment of Shawshank, but Darabont is still interested in finding the hope in the tale.
If I had to single out one performance, it would be Michael Jeter and his surprisingly touching Eduard Delacroix, a convict who befriends a mouse as a way to stay sane while he waits to die.
But it’s not all that fair to single out Jeter because the actors all work so well together. To name just a few, there’s David Morse (always a pleasant surprise), Bonnie Hunt (finally in a big film worthy of her talent and humor), Gary Sinese (in a sobering role as a cynical lawyer), and Dabbs Greer as Paul, looking back at his life from the perspective of 1999. In his relatively brief screen time (about 20 minutes), Greer makes a quietly powerful impression as a good man who must come to terms with the consequences of his experience so many years before.
And there’s a shot in The Green Mile that will stay with me just because I used to live in the South (Virginia, not Louisiana). The Death Row officers are trekking through the woods on a mission. It’s a forest in the South, in the summer, at night, and that means fireflies. Hundreds of them.
I miss the fireflies.
My ambivalence – which I still can’t completely explain (blast these deadlines!) – doesn’t change the fact that The Green Mile is a good, solid, worthwhile film. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by how incredibly good and varied and interesting and unexpected so many movies have been this year…or maybe this is the sort of film that critics like at their peril.
See it. You’ll find something – perhaps many somethings – worthwhile.