I always get a little nervous when proven directors start pigeonholing themselves. I’m not necessarily talking about an auteur investing six or seven years of their career in a trilogy or even a director who loves to dabble in a particular genre like horror or comic book adaptations – no, I’m talking about when an extremely talented filmmaker makes back to back features that are overwhelmingly similar.
In 1994, Frank Darabont made The Shawshank Redemption and it was subsequently ignored despite being an exceptional piece of movie making and a damn fine Stephen King adaptation to boot. Eventually, justice prevailed and the film was rightfully embraced and hailed as a masterpiece, but you feel that there was a sense of some some unfinished business hanging in the air and so in 1999, Darabont made The Green Mile. However, there was something aaaawfully familiar about it….
During the great depression in Louisiana in 1935, corrections officer Paul Edgecomb has two main worries in his life – the first is to supervise all the various inmates waiting their time out on death row (aka. the Green Mile) before they take their seat in the electric chair and the second is to try and motor through the worst urinary infestation of his life. He’s flanked by a team of loyal guards and one utter douchebag (there’s always one) and things run pretty smoothly until the arrival of John Coffey, a gargantuan black man with the mind of a child who has received the death penalty for the murder of two children. Initially unnerved by the man’s sheer size, his gentle demeanour soon endears him to the guards, as does the arrival of a mouse on the mile who gets dubbed “Mr Jingles” by another inmate. However, the relative calm of the Green Mile is shattered by the arrival of William “Wild Bill” Wharton, a prisoner who experts would no doubt describe as crazier as a shit house rat who stirs up no end of trouble the second he arrives. In the ensuing bedlam, it’s here that Paul discovers something miraculous – that John Coffey has the very special gift of healing people after he helps Paul with his bladder problem, but this also causes a bit of a conundrum. Doubtful that the Almighty would put such a power in the hands of someone who could take the lives of two little girls, Paul does some digging, but as he does a string of events are set in motion that will ensare all who walk the mile, everyone from Paul, to the warden and his sick wife, to the other inmate, to even little Mr. Jingles that will last long after John is due to ride the lightning in the chair glibly named “Old Sparky” by the staff.
The Green Mile has always had me in two minds: on one hand the movie is finely written, superbly acted and genuinely touching; but on the other it’s a bit jarring that a man of Darabont’s talents felt the need to do a second, tear jerking, prison-set, period piece, Stephen King adaptation in a row. While the two movies are still noticably different enough in their content, somehow it still manages to take a little bit of shine off the finished product despite its many good points.
Before I go into those good points, one thing I have to address is that in some aspects, time really has not been kind to The Green Mile chiefly concerning John Coffey’s utterly docile nature concerning his plight and while I understand that the character has noticably learning difficulties, the big, climactic scene that asks us to cry along as a black guy forgives a group of white officers for his upcoming execution for crime he didn’t commit just doesn’t play particularly well due in the wake of George Floyd and the BLM movement.
Aside from this miscalculation, The Green Mile is bursting with nuanced, evenly paced storytelling, measured characterization and genuine warmth with standout performances all over the damn place. King’s story was originally printed in a serial format with the six installments having a staggered paperback release and yet somehow Darabont manages to avoid making the sizable story feel episodic by sustaining a smooth, narrative flow. Aside from Tom Hank’s typically upstanding lead (he is America’s Favorite Uncle, after all) we also get the late great Michael Clarke Duncan take his huge, Kingpin-sized sized frame and emote with the innocence of a child in a turn that netted him an Oscar nomination – not bad for someone who third in the cast list for The Scorpion King. On top of that we get an impressively punchable turn from previous X-Files villain Doug Hutchinson (he was the stretchy guy in Squeeze) and an early, totally off-the-chain role for Sam Rockwell as the lunatic “Wild Bill”. Perhaps The Green Mile’s most impressive achievement is that it’s truly daunting 3 hour plus (!) run time literally doesn’t numb your derriere to the point that your legs fall off and that Darabont has the confidence to let the story unfurl at its own pace – a talent that’s become somewhat misused over the years.
Everything all falls nicely into place and there’s even a memorable left turn into more familiar horror territory for King with a highly memorable moment where an execution goes about as wrong as can be with the screaming recipient being cooked alive by the surging current. But despite a script more solid than a wrecking ball and an awards worthy cast, the biggest problem that The Green Mile has is that it’s simply not The Shawshank Redemption and the fact that it shares so many things is common only highlights how much better the previous film was. If the movie had been his third film, I wouldn’t have this problem, but much like every Michael Mann thriller made after Heat, it can’t help but suffer with any comparison.
Still, taken on it’s own merits, The Green Mile is worthy stuff and still light years ahead of at least 80% of other King adaptations out there and despite its length, this Mile never feels too long or strenuous.