The Green Mile, like The Sixth Sense, is a movie that takes its supernaturalism with a great deal of largo seriousness, and it may end up striking the same kind of emotional chord with audiences. Set mostly in a southern penitentiary in 1935 and starring Tom Hanks as a prison guard supervising death row, it’s about innocence and forgiveness, and coming back from the dead, or the near-dead; the film’s quasi-biblical vibes and slow-crawl pacing give it a ponderous grandiosity. Frank Darabont, who wrote and directed The Shawshank Redemption, is once again working on Stephen King source material set in prison. The film’s three-plus hours length, not entirely justified by the subject matter, is almost a rebuke to the MTV generation. Sit still for this, it says. I’m sympathetic to Darabont’s complaint: If we lose the ability to sit through the longueurs of a fairly good and well-acted movie like The Green Mile, then we probably won’t be making it through the epic-size great stuff, either.
Much of The Green Mile resembles a long-form version of one of those “meaningful” Twilight Zone episodes that always came with a moral lesson attached. The lesson here is that grace sometimes appears in the guise of the grotesque. Hanks’s Paul Edgecomb, whom we also see as a present-day old man in the film’s framing device, is in charge of conducting the prison’s electrocutions, and into his death row one day comes a behemoth of a black man, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), convicted on circumstantial evidence of murdering two young white sisters.
Coffey, who, despite his appearance, is as childlike as Lenny in Of Mice and Men, turns out to be a magical healer; he clears up Edgecomb’s searing bladder infection and then moves on to bigger things. Coffey is a holy fool, and by emphasizing the man’s shambling, menacing, big-buck hulkiness, Darabont comes uncomfortably close to racial stereotyping. The point here seems to be that one must look beyond the packaging, but the point is not always well made. In a movie in which everybody seems to be a symbol for something or other – usually pure goodness or utter depravity – Coffey may be carrying more than his quota.
Set alongside him is Percy (Doug Hutchison), a snot-nosed sadist of a guard whose uncle is governor; Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter), a sweet-souled Creole death-row prisoner whose closest friend is a cell-block mouse; Wild Bill (Sam Rockwell), a multiple-murderer yahoo; and, of course, Edgecomb, who fears divine punishment for setting up for execution “an angel of God.” Edgecomb is depicted as a good and decent man who must carry out orders. Though there is ample reason to do so, neither he nor anyone else attempts to overturn those orders; there’s no suggestion that on some deeper level he may not even be aware of, Edgecomb is complicit in pushing through the execution. Edgecomb is like a simplistic version of Melville’s Captain Vere, with Coffey as the Billy Budd he hastens to his end. Darabont works big but thinks small, or at least without great complexity. The green mile in the title refers to the stretch of green floor leading from the cells to the death chamber, and the film, puffed with significance, is a fable about how we all walk our own mile in our own time.