1999, Barry Pepper, Bonnie Hunt, Dabbs Greer, Dabs Greer, David Morse, Doug Hutchison, drama, film review, Frank Darabont, Green Mile, Harry Dean Stanton, horror, James Cromwell, magic realism, Magical Negro, Michael Clarke Duncan, Michael Jeter, Patricia Clarkson, Sam Rockwell, Spike Lee, Stephen King, supernatural, Tom Hanks
Written and Directed by: Frank Darabont, based on the serial novel by Stephen King
Starring: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sam Rockwell, David Morse, Michael Jeter, Doug Hutchison, James Cromwell, Patricia Clarkson, Bonnie Hunt, Barry Pepper, Harry Dean Stanton, Dabs Greer
Spike Lee is credited with coining the term “Super Duper Magical Negro”, used to describe the archaic and shockingly common archetype of a black man with magical powers that he uses to help white people solve their problems. Stephen King is accused of using the trope too frequently, and perhaps never more strangely than in The Green Mile. This movie clocks in at over 3 hours and it’s an experience that’s as bizarre as it is long.
Paul Edgecomb (played by Tom Hanks as a young man and Dabbs Greer as an elderly man) is the warden at a Louisiana Death Row known as “The Green Mile” because it has green floors… for some reason? Paul is suffering from a crippling bladder infect (something that takes up an enormous chunk of the film), and is struggling to keep the peace among his workers thanks to the slimy Percy (Doug Hutchison). One day an enormous black man named John Coffey arrives on death row, sentenced for allegedly raping and killing two young white girls. It turns out that Coffey doesn’t have the demeanor of a murderer, rather that of a child who is scared of the dark. Yes, well after more than an hour of plot-building and strange light-heartedness, The Green Mile takes an inexplicable hard left turn towards the supernatural. When The Green Mile was released in 1999, it was huge and much talked about, yet somehow I managed to never learn that it is very much a film about the super natural. I was expecting a dark and dramatic contemplation of capital punishment and instead I was served a story about a big black fella who fixes Tom Hanks’ dick. Well then.
Direction from Frank Darabont is confused and disruptive, continuously making light of the serious topics of prison violence, abuse of power, capital punishment, cancer, racial inequality, and on and on. The script is stuffed with “big issues” that are so sugar coated The Green Mile can barely be labeled a drama. A prisoner tries to strangle a guard who pisses in his pants, but we don’t like that guard so it’s funny, and likewise that same prisoner gets hit with a fire hose but he’s mouthy so it’s comical. A weird plot point involving some of the guards sneaking Coffey out of his cell includes a scene where they put another guard in a straitjacket, gag him and leave him in solitary confinement for several hours. This sort of cruelty should, I believe, be treated with care but in The Green Mile it is played for laughs. The neglectful execution of one particularly lovable felon, intended as heart wrenching, is so over-the-top that it belongs in a campy B-horror. The Green Mile ends with a monologue so long-winded and contrived, it might be easy not to notice that it doesn’t mean anything. At all. I’m not kidding, go watch it again and see for yourself.
A reading of The Green Mile is nearly impossible, as it thwarts its own intentions at every turn. As I mentioned earlier, any points about racism or the cruelty of capital punishment are rendered moot by the films own clumsy humour and lack of self-awareness. The film is pretty clear on the existence of God, so then is John Coffey meant as a Christ figure? If that’s the case then there are more issues afoot than this film is prepared to defend. The framing of The Green Mile with sections of Edgecomb as an old man serve an unclear purpose and if these sections are meant to consider notions of immortality, then what are the intended conclusions??
I admit that I was entertained by The Green Mile, and I was meant to be. The film is disarming with its humour and it is comfortable because it doesn’t force its audience to ever actually consider any serious issues.