Friday 23 January 2015

Movie Review: The Green Mile (1999)

A prison drama that explores themes of life, death, compassion and retribution through the prism of death row, The Green Mile is a cerebral masterpiece of elegance.

The story is told in flashback, from the perspective of the elderly Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer), who now lives in a seniors' home. Back in 1935, Paul (Tom Hanks) was the prison officer responsible for death row (known as The Green Mile due to the colour of the floor paint) at a Louisiana prison. He commands a small group of officers including veterans Brutus (David Morse) and Harry (Jeffrey DeMunn), the young Dean (Barry Pepper), and the detestable Percy (Doug Hutchison). Brutus, Harry and Dean are fiercely loyal to Paul, while Percy is an arrogant phony, and owes his job to family connections.

With Paul suffering through the agony of a urinary tract infection much to the bemusement of his wife Jan (Bonnie Hunt), new death row inmate John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) arrives at the prison. A huge black man of few words, Coffey has been convicted of the brutal rape and murder of two young sisters. Paul recognizes Coffey as a gentle giant, soft-spoken, polite and seemingly incapable of violence. The same cannot be said for the next inmate to arrive: Wild Bill Wharton (Sam Rockwell) is plain nuts, oscillating between hyperactive, deranged and psychotic. Meanwhile, prison warden Hal Moores (James Cromwell) is struggling through a personal tragedy: his wife Melinda (Patricia Clarkson) may have a brain tumor.

An agile mouse makes its presence felt in death row, and becomes best friends with inmate Del (Michael Jeter). Percy continues to exude the worst combination of cruel and smug, while Paul and his team practice mock electric chair executions, using janitor and handyman Toot-Toot (Harry Dean Stanton) as a willing prop. And then Coffey suddenly demonstrates remarkable powers, first on Paul and then on Del's mouse. Coffey's abilities force Paul and his crew to re-assess who their gigantic prisoner really is, and what should they be doing with him.

After achieving remarkable success with The Shawshank Redemption (1994), director Frank Darabont adapts another prison-based Stephen King novel and, incredibly, matches the accomplishment. The Green Mile is an exceptional film, 188 minutes of rich strorytelling with a deep focus on unforgettable characters and thought-provoking themes. Despite the long running length, the film is never less than engrossing. A steady stream of events provides a succession of set-piece highlights with lasting impacts, including executions, mouse antics, Percy's sadism, and Coffey gradually revealing his powers,

Meanwhile, the heinous crime that landed Coffey on death row plays out in the background, presented in a series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the film, revealing victims most innocent and a perpetrator most violent. Paul looks past Coffey's gargantuan size and sees the incongruity between the crime and the man inside the cell. And once Coffey transitions from prisoner to someone who may be so much more, Paul is faced with a moral crisis not easily resolved.

The Green Mile is ultimately about human laws and procedures proving absolutely necessary to keep men like Wild Bill in check, but proving equally incapable of looking past superficialities when it comes to complex characters like Coffey. A massive black man found at the crime scene appears most guilty. He does not profess his innocence because he knows he has failed, but understanding his failure will require an ability to accept that a threatening appearance can be something other than a threat. It's a profound theme that strikes at the heart of every society's ability to deal humanely with what is different, unconventional, and potentially most supremely gifted.

Darabont makes it all work by creating a film that reveals its secrets like a book. Characters come alive, are sharply defined, and enriched by work, family and events. There is true friendship between Paul, Brutus, Harry and Dean of the type rarely seen on film. These men respect and care for each other, they calmly discuss issues, and cooperate to get things done, from solving the Percy problem to helping the warden and his wife. And when things go wrong, they cover for each other and quickly think on their feet to minimize the damage.

Paul's wife Jan, the warden Hal, his wife Melinda, and the scrappy Toot-Toot are tertiary characters who would not make it into most films. Here they play key roles and add depth to the unfolding drama, bringing Paul's home life into relief and in Melinda's case providing Coffey with a most unexpected opportunity to redress the balance on the Green Mile.

The performances from the large cast are uniformly impressive. Tom Hanks as Paul is both empathetic and stoic in the face of daily interaction with men doomed to die. Michael Clarke Duncan delivers a monumental turn as Coffey, one of the most enduring characters to grace a film. Duncan gives John a searing simplicity that becomes a condemnation of social and religious norms, and Coffey emerges as a change agent in the lives of those he touches.

The Green Mile is where life comes to meet death. The film offers a path through which the lines are blurred, where death and life start to merge. There is life in death, death in life, and a re-appreciation of the value and meaning of each.

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