Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Green Mile (1999)

The Green Mile (1999)
Directed by: Frank Darabont
Written by: Frank Darabont
Starring: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Bonnie Hunt, Barry Pepper, Dabbs Greer
(189 minutes, Color)
Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecomb

The Green Mile is a patient movie that lures us slowly into its world. The vast majority of its action takes place in not just a single building, but a single room, and much of its duration is populated by events that may seem insignificant or mundane. By the climax of the movie, the audience realizes that these mundane moments have paid off. We are a part of the film's soul, and we hang on its beck and call. Courageous writer and director Frank Darabont wields complete control over his audience and their emotions. In the hands of a less gifted artist, this scenario would be nothing more than a set-up for failure and disappointment. Under Darabont's guidance, The Green Mile confronts us with harsh realities of life and death, taking us with confidence to that fleeting and most moving of places the majority of films fail to locate and explore effectively: mortality.

The Green Mile is a film about death. Its action takes place in cell block 13 of a massive, looming 1930s prison in the Southern United States. This block is where prisoners awaiting the death sentence, the "walking dead," spend their final months. It's referred to by its supervisor, Paul Edgecomb, as The Green Mile. The floor is a dingy shade of lime. The electricity comes and goes. The block is hot and stuffy, and is never occupied by more than a few inmates. Throughout the entire movie, you can count the prisoners on one hand. Edgecomb is joined by three other guards, plus a rookie named Percy. Their job is to keep the prisoners orderly until their day of judgement, and most importantly, keep the inmates calm. On death row, when subjected to stress, people break.

The guards approach their jobs with a callous respect. They are firm with the prisoners but treat them with dignity. They practice executions a few times the day before they occur, running through their lines and motions as if practicing a show for a crowd. And there is a crowd. Executions on the Green Mile always draw spectators. During one practice session, the fake victim, an employee of the prison, is asked if he has any last words or requests. "I want Fae Wray to sit on my face," he spits out. The guards chuckle, and eventually all are laughing. Edgecomb quickly reins them in with a solemn dictate. "Tomorrow we'll be doing this for real," he chides. "You know how it is in church, when you think of something funny and try not to laugh? That can't be the case here."

Edgecomb is good at his job, and he does his best to keep emotion at an arm's length. He is confronted by horrors every day during his work. He makes his living by overseeing the ultimate judgement handed down to the most reviled of society. He approaches it like any job. He goes home after hours and kisses his wife. Sometimes he is kept up at night, but not often. Edgecomb is certainly an arm of the law.

Played by Tom Hanks, however, he's more than that. It's refreshing to see a character fleshed out so fully by an actor's miraculous performance. When the movie begins, Edgecomb suffers from a urinary tract infection that plagues him for much of the film. He grows impatient with his medical condition, as well as the increasing demands of his job, which unfairly leave him unable to deal with the antics of the cruel and violently immature Percy. It's essential to the story that Edgecomb is never a caricature, and Hanks assuages that fear early on in the film. Edgecomb is always in control of his emotions, but the genius in Hanks's performance is that he lets the audience glimpse how hard Edgecomb works to be in control.

It's important that aspect of Edgecomb's character is established by the time the film's fantastic events begin occurring. The newest inmate of The Green Mile is a massive black man named John Coffey. "Like the drink, only not spelled the same," a shy Coffey explains to Edgecomb upon their meeting. Coffey towers above all of the prison's guards and his fellow inmates. He is so large and broad it seems he could crush a man's head in his fist. He has recieved the death penalty for the brutal rape and murder of two young white girls. Coffey was found sobbing with their broken and bloodied bodies in his arms, sobbing and apologizing for not being able to "take it back." During his first night in Block 13, Coffey presents Edgecomb with one request: that some lights in the corridor be left on overnight. Edgecomb looks up at the giant incredulously. As it turns out, John Coffey is afraid of the dark.

Throughout the first portion of the movie, Coffey is a gentle, consistent presence in the background of the action. The movie steps aside at first to focus on other characters: Edgecomb and his wife battling his ever-worsening medical condition, Hal Moores, the prison supervisor, confronting his wife's brain tumor, and a French inmate named Eduard Delacroix (nicknamed Del) finding small joy in taming a mouse he names Mr. Jingles. Another recently incarcerated man by the name of Will Wharton is reprehensibly vile and causes problems for Edgecomb and the others. Percy, the rookie guard with powerful relatives, displays a near-deranged obsession with death, bordering on sadism. Aside from his general ineptness, he treats the prisoners with malice and upsets the order of the Mile, which leaves Edgecomb longing to be rid of him. Percy has one request before he agrees to move on to another job: not only does he want to be present during prisoners' executions, he wants to give the order to flip the switch. Rarely have I encountered such a purely vile character in a movie.
Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey

All of these events swirl around John Coffey as he remains quietly in his cell. Coffey's state-appointed attorney compares Coffey to a stray dog when speaking to Edgecomb. "You may not think that John Coffey would ever kill. Well, I never thought my dog would bite." Nevertheless, his behavior gives the impression of an unassuming teddy bear: simpleminded, hardly capable of brutality and scarcely aware of his own strength. As Coffey's character and abilities are gradually revealed throughout the course of the film, the lives of all those who come into contact with him are irreparably changed for better and worse.

This movie is based off of a serial novel, published in increments, by Stephen King. As with most of King's work, the plot of this one wades into the realm of the supernatural before its end, but The Green Mile gently eases itself into fantastic plot points without losing its realism. The script exists as an incredibly adept tight-rope walk between tangible events and a moving spirituality, and unlike many other King adaptations, it is incredibly faithful to the source material while simultaneously creating a unique film environment of its own. Frank Darabont is in no hurry to reveal the story's secrets in his script. Before the supernatural events surrounding Coffey are seen, much less explained, a third of the film's three hour running time has passed.

The Green Mile was a box office success upon release, but much was made of its pace and running time by critics and audiences alike. I was grateful for the extra running time. Whereas so many modern films have great potential for character development but ultimately fail to achieve it, The Green Mile allows us to settle comfortably into its rhythm, so by the time extraordinary events begin occurring, we feel like we've known the characters for months or years. Darabont has created a gritty film where every minute that passes is realistic, and patiently so. This isn't a script that cuts corners or limits itself to only showing moments of unmissable importance. When looked at individually, several scenes of the movie may seem dispensable. Taken as a whole, no scene in the movie could possibly be cut any more than a gaping hole could be left in a quilt. Darabont sets out to tell a whole story, and he accomplishes his mission without any excuses or cheapening of the material.

The plot of the movie embraces the impossible, but it keeps itself grounded by not losing itself in fantasy, instead focusing on how various people deal with spirituality when it presents itself. Instead of allowing supernatural elements to distract from his film's finer emotional points, Darabont uses them to elevate the film's final impact. Another big factor in the film's final resonance is Michael Clarke Duncan's remarkable performance as John Coffey. His portrayal of Coffey embodies something present in all of us: a tiny part of our souls, lost or forgotten in many of us, overwhelmed by life's toils yet thoroughly resistant to them.

Ultimately, The Green Mile is about the varying relationships of different people, and the harsh realities around them. The movie ponders death and how we face it. The characters in the movie, like all of us in the audience, are constantly surrounded by it. Its presence is surely more tangible to those on Death Row, but its inevitability is no less certain to the rest of us. Darabont's characters take different attitudes towards death, and it is presented in many forms over the course of the film. The execution scenes are unflinchingly graphic and painful to watch, easily earning the movie its R rating. The victims of the death penalty aren't willing to die, and despite their months in jail awaiting their fate, aren't prepared. Edgecomb and the other guards view the death penalty as a necessary proponent of the law. They have empathy, but they execute their jobs with precision. Nonetheless, it's plain to see that those executed are deprived of life's joys. Death is cruel and unfair to them. Elsewhere, however, it is seen as a reprieve. In all of its forms, it is heralded by impossible choices. Edgecomb and the other guards must face the most difficult choice of all. Despite his unique traits, John Coffey is still a criminal on death row, and under the eyes of the law, there is but one fate that can be delivered to him. Whether that regulation is carried out is up to the guards to decide.

The Green Mile's main story is told in flashback by an old Edgecomb, who resides in a nursing home. His curse is his longevity: he has outlived his loved ones and now must face life by himself. He orates his amazing experiences to another resident, remarking with wonder on how simultaneously miraculous and melancholy life can be. Life brings sorrow and despair, he muses. But ultimately, there is healing.

The Green Mile earns its R rating for violence, language, and some sex-related material. The movie's thematic elements are very mature and revolve around issues like death, criminal and violent behavior, spirituality, and faith. Rape and murder are frequently mentioned. The on-screen executions are downright brutal to watch. One execution goes wrong and the victim's face (under a hood) explodes into flames from the electricity before he dies. Profanity is used less frequently than in most R rated films, but when it is used, it feels especially harsh.

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