Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie – The Green Mile (1999)

Quick quiz: what is the only Stephen King adaptation to gross more than $100 million at the U.S. box office?  Quick quiz #2: what is the movie that King considers to be the most faithful adaptation of his works?  If you didn’t answer "The Green Mile" then you didn’t read the title to this post.  The “green mile” refers to a condemned man’s walk from his death row cell to the electric chair that will take his life.  We come to realize during the movie that the title is also a metaphor for another character’s journey.  Director Frank Darabont had previously filmed King’s novel The Shawshank Redemption, so he had no trouble getting the go ahead to do this one.  The result competes with Shawshank as my favorite movie ever made from a Stephen King work.

King was born, raised, and still lives in Maine and he famously sets many of his stories in the state.  In the case of The Green Mile, though, he set it in Louisiana.  He also did something else different: he published the novel in installments.  People got to read his novel as he was writing it, but they did not get to skip to the end to see how it was going to turn out.

The movie opens in the present with an old man named Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer) in an assisted living facility, but apparently still in good health.  He is close with a woman named Elaine (Eve Brent) and she can see that he has some powerful memories coming to the surface while watching an old Astaire/Rogers film.  He starts to share his memories with her and the film flashes back to the 1930s.  

Paul, now played by Tom Hanks, is a security guard on death row.  Also serving with him are Brutus Howell (Davis Morse) and Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper).  (In some fun casting Harry Dean Stanton plays the prison janitor who is used during the mock electrocution procedures.)  Another guard by the name of Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchinson) joins them.  The warden (James Cromwell) tells Paul that Percy is related to the Governor of the state so they have to put up with him being there.  Percy is soon revealed to be a sadist of the first order, taking delight in punishing the prisoners and looking forward with glee to the executions he is going to be a part of.

One day a massive black prisoner named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) is brought onto death row.  His size seems to belie his nature, though.  He joins the other inmates Del (Michael Jeter) and Arlen (Graham Greene) on “the Mile”.  We soon see Arlen put to death and a new prisoner “Wild” Bill Wharton (Sam Rockwell) replaces him on death row.  Unlike Coffey and Del, Wharton is a very violent and deranged man.  He takes every opportunity to attack both guards and prisoners.

During all of this Coffey has remained calm.  One day out of the blue he grabs Paul’s crotch.  Ladies, trust me when I tell you that we men do not want seven foot tall, massively muscular, death row prisoners grabbing us there.  Rather than do it to cause damage, though, Coffey is revealed to have some kind of supernatural healing power.  He had been able to sense that Paul was greatly bothered by a stone he couldn’t pass and Coffey somehow heals him, releasing the “bad stuff” by expelling a cloud of something out of his mouth.  Paul finds that he is now fully healthy.  Needless to say, he is thrown by the whole thing.

A little later, Percy, just to be a miserable human being, stomps on and kills a pet mouse that one of the prisoners had.  Coffey asks to be handed the dead mouse and he manages to bring it back to life, once again releasing the bad substance from his mouth.  This time everyone witnesses it.  Paul and the other guards, minus Percy of course, discuss whether Coffey can really be a killer.  One believes that there is no way God would give the gift of healing to a man who could take a life.  They even consider taking Coffey out of the prison to see if he can heal the terminally ill wife (Patricia Clarkson) of their warden.

I won’t go any further on the plot (and there is quite a bit left).  I also won’t spoil a nice reveal at the end, but I will say that it had been something that had been bothering me a little since the beginning of the film when it had originally flashed back from the older Paul to the younger Paul.  I was glad to see that it was explained and that it wasn’t just bad writing.

Michael Clark Duncan, who by the way was “only” 6’ 5” in real life, earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his performance, although he ended up losing to Michael Caine, who received a “career Oscar” for The Cider House Rules.  The Green Mile was also nominated for Best Picture, losing to American Beauty.

The Green Mile is a very emotional film.  It has both highs and lows and the highs are very nice and the lows are very sad.  I’ll admit that I cried during a scene in this film.  Since I’ve also said that about Field of Dreams, perhaps you figure I am a softy who cries at rainbows and sunsets, too.  Well, a good friend of mine is the stereotype of the big, tough manly man – tall, wide, motorcycle rider, tattoo before it was a fashion statement, etc.  When I mentioned this film to him he surprised me by saying he had seen it.  He then looked sideways at me, lowered his voice, and said, “I cried like a damn baby.”

Please don’t let the possibility of seeing some sad scenes prevent you from seeing this film, though.  It is a very good movie, and unless you are a guy worried about damaging your manly reputation, then I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Good review Chip. It's a tad too long, but it's strong story that still holds up very, very well.

    1. After reading your comment I actually was surprised when I looked on the IMDB page and saw that it was three hours long. I didn't drag at all for me. On the other hand, I've had some 90 minute movies feel like they took all day to finish.

  2. I guess Shawshank was one of those movies that only became super popular after it was released on home video.

    I haven't seen this movie since it came out, but I vividly remember the scenes of them watching that Astaire/Rogers dance scene in the prison. It also brings to mind the scene in Shawshank where they watch Gilda. I guess it's Steven King's way of pointing out that when you watch a movie over and over again, certain scenes are imprinted on your brain forever.

    1. That's a very good point about the power of the movie image and how it is connected to memory. Thanks for sharing it here. I see from your site that you are starting on reviewing the entries in the 1,001 Movies list. I expect I'll be stopping by there.