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Movie Review

Traversing 'The Green Mile'

December 10, 1999|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

The face of Hollywood today is the face of power. Director's power. The power of special effects. Together, they can create wonders, but if unchecked they can also lead to things that are not so wonderful, things that are done simply because the power to do them is there. Witness "The Green Mile."

That there's a good story in "The Green Mile" is not much of a surprise. Stephen King's serial novel mixed new age miracles with age-old "behind these walls" prison melodrama cleverly enough to sell 20 million copies and have its six parts last a total of 93 weeks on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list.

What is a surprise is how deeply, almost fatally buried that story is in three hours and eight minutes of ultra-leisurely storytelling by a filmmaker too fond of his own work to cut a frame, and too powerful to be amenable to changing his mind. Not even the excellent, elevating acting of Tom Hanks as the head guard on death row and some pleasing supernatural moments can make up for a film that moves with the suffocating deliberateness of a river of molasses.

"The Green Mile's" writer-director is Frank Darabont, whose last film was another adaptation of a King prison story, "The Shawshank Redemption." Its seven Oscar nominations (including best picture) notwithstanding, "Shawshank" revealed a filmmaker with a sure instinct, even a gift for the obvious. Similarly, though the dramatic beats in "The Green Mile" are highly polished, they also couldn't be more pronounced and predictable.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 14, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Film credits--In Friday's review of "The Green Mile," two members of the production team were misidentified in the credit box. The film's art director is William Cruse and the set decorator is Michael Seirton.

The heart of the problem (and one of the causes of the film's length) is the overly earnest attitude Darabont takes toward the material. "The Green Mile" sold as many copies as it did not because its themes are lofty and profound but because it's a page-turner. What we have here is basically pulp material (albeit of a high order), and pulp material doesn't gain in effectiveness by being treated as if it were written by Henry James.

"The Green Mile's" other unpleasant surprise is what it makes you endure in the way of on-screen horrors. Three executions via electric chair are shown, and while none of them is exactly pleasant, the death of Edouard Delacroix (Michael Jeter) is gruesome and stomach-turning beyond reason. How many lovingly constructed and very realistic shots of a man's head consumed by flames does any sane person need to experience?

Yes, this sequence is critical to the plot and comes directly from the book, but so is a spate of illness-related profanity by a female character that, presumably out of a desire not to offend, is alluded to but not reproduced. Just because special effects technology and a director-as-brutalizer attitude make it possible to fry the audience's sensibilities as well as the victim's body, is that sufficient reason to do it? Making the visuals as graphic as possible doesn't make the film richer and more meaningful; if anything, it's so horrific it throws you right out of the movie and makes it more difficult to get reinvolved with the narrative.

"The Green Mile" opens in a more bucolic spot, a Southern retirement home where longtime resident Paul Edgecomb is something of a mystery to both staff and fellow boarders. One day, a glimpse of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film on TV triggers a teary breakdown, and Paul tells his friend Elaine things he hasn't spoken about in 60 years.

Back we go to 1935, where a younger Edgecomb (Hanks) works in Louisiana's Cold Mountain Penitentiary as the guard in charge of the Green Mile, named for the walk from death row to the electric chair because the cement floor is painted a glowing lime green. That's the year Edgecomb was suffering from an excruciating urinary infection and the year that John Coffey (Michael Clark Duncan) took up residence on the Green Mile as the convicted killer of two little girls.

Coffey turns out to be a giant of a black man (7 feet tall in the book and wonderfully played by the 6-foot-5-inch, 300-plus-pound Duncan), someone whose staggering size is matched by the timidity of his man-child behavior. Coffey's considered somewhat simple-minded by the guards (David Morse is especially effective as Brutus "Brutal" Howell) but he turns out to have inexplicable powers (some involving swarms of exhaled insects left over from "The Mummy") that have consequences both terrible and wonderful.

*

There are other prisoners on the Green Mile, the most notable being the unfortunate Delacroix, who makes friends with a performing mouse named Mr. Jingles who's known for his ability to roll an empty spool of thread, and William "Wild Bill" Wharton. A smiling psychopath (convincingly played by Sam Rockwell), Wharton is so thoroughly evil that his very presence complicates things on the Mile.

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