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Non-Review Review: The Green Mile

I never really responded to The Shawshank Redemption. I’ll go into why exactly if I ever get around to writing a review of it, but perhaps the fact that I never really embraced the film as strongly as most film fans (or even just, y’know, people) is the reason that I am somewhat fonder of The Green Mile than most. The Green Mile is admittedly as guilty as Frank Darabont’s early Stephen King adaptation set in a prison when it comes to emotional manipulation of its audience (look at us humanise the prison guards by having the three of them tackle a mouse in a borderline comedic fashion!), but I find it a lot more honest about its inherent darkness than that tale of redemption in Shawshank.

No, it's not a halo, but it's pretty close...

Don’t get me wrong, The Shawshank Redemption is a dark film. The bits with the Sisters alone make my skin crawl, as does the sheer amount of authority the warden wields over his inmates. However, I always found it strange how the movie let these horrors roll off, like water from a duck’s back. It never really felt like the story of hope’s triumph that it was supposed to be – after all, what good is hope if it can let you suffer like that for so long and hope that a last-minute reprieve singlehandedly affirms all those years of waiting?

If The Shawshank Redemption is the story of hope’s triumph over adversity, The Green Mile is… not. Of course, there’s still that hokey charm that defined the earlier work – the same themes of faith play through the film. Darabont is a skilled director, and I’d be lying if I said that the movie isn’t affecting. Indeed, I was amazed to sit down to watch it and find out how much had stayed with me, despite the fact I hadn’t seen it in years. And I still flinched at certain sequences, even though I knew they were coming.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s told through the eyes of a prison officer in charge of “the last mile” at the local prison (they call it “The Green Mile” because of the colour it is painted). He and his officers are charged with stewarding the inmates through their darkest hours, and keeping vigile over them as their execution awakes. As you might expect, some of the stories are genuinely heartbreaking, while other prisoners are unrepentent.

Though the film focuses on an ensemble of prisoners and guards, all played wonderfully by an all-star cast and conforming to a variety of archetypes, the lynchpin which ties it all together is the arrival of a large African-American accused of killing two children on the mile. However, John Coffey is different from the other inmates. As he stays on the ward, guard Paul Edgecomb starts noticing strange phenomena. Really strange.

To this day, I’m not necessarily comfortable with the stereotype that John evokes. Coupled with the film’s historical setting, the presentation of a large, uneducated, yet somehow supernatural African American runs the risk of seeming poorly-thought-out or even ill-advised. On the other hand, Michael Clarke Duncan’s portrayal of John is easily one of the most iconic cinematic performances of the last decade – and it’s easy to see why. Although his later roles would not quite live up to the promise he demonstrated here, Duncan’s performance sells the role – and, for the most part, convinces me to look past the rather shallow and stereotypical nature of the character.

Paul didn't want to hear a pip squeak out of any resident on the mile...

Duncan is ably supported by a fantastic cast. The film offers the largest role to date for Doug Hutchinson, a cult actor who seems to effortlessly seem unsettling (here playing the token “weasel” prison guard). Sam Rockwell pops up here in one of his breakout roles (he was in a string of great supporting roles around this time, if I remember), playing the facility’s token “psychotic” inmate. David Morse, James Cromwell, Gary Sinese and Barry Pepper show up in supporting roles, offering a touch of class to characters who would otherwise be part of the scenery. And Tom Hanks turns in yet another great nineties leading performance – it’s by no means among his finest, but there’s a reason he had to build a special “Oscar” trophy cabinet.

Darabont’s skill and the talent of his cast can only really go so far. The movie does have several flaws. The most obvious is how incredibly predictable it all is. From the moment that John is introduced, the audience is given no reason to believe that he could be a killer. Similarly, the audience is savvy enough to spot that John as paranormal powers from the moment a dead mouse scuttles into view (if not earlier). Clearly, without seventy years of popular culture to draw on, the characters can’t make the leap as quickly, but the audience spends most of the movie a good three steps ahead of the film. The movie’s similarities to The Shawshank Redemption are arguably an extra weight on its shoulders – the fact that I could discuss “the Frank Darabont-Stephen King prison movie set in the thirties” and you couldn’t be sure which of these two films I was talking about indicates perhaps that the movie was too formulaic for its own good. That isn’t necessarily a problem – the execution is engaging enough that we forgive such mundane plotting.

The movie’s other problem is simply that it is a lot more blatant about its emotional manipulation than than Darabont’s earlier film. Whereas – despite some incredibly dark content – The Shawshank Redemption was consistently optimistic in tone (you never doubted Andy would prevail), here the mood alternates between whimsically funny (watch the hijinks of the serial killer and the guards!), heartwarming (“you knock ’em for a loop, Larry!” with the trick-doing mouse) and heartbreaking (go on, guess). The effect of this is that the audience feels yanked back and forth – as if, even in a two-and-a-half-hour film, there’s not enough room for everything. And it’s exhausting.

Still, I have a soft spot the film. The cast and direction are competent enough that the fairly significant flaws can be overlooked. It’s certainly not the best Stephen King adaptation, nor the best from director Frank Darabont, but this is a good film.

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