Positioning himself as the unassailable specialist in adapting Stephen King period prison novels for the screen, Frank Darabont emerges from his five-year hiatus after “The Shawshank Redemption” with “The Green Mile,” an intermittently powerful and meticulously crafted drama that falls short of its full potential due to considerable over-length and some shopworn, simplistic notions at its center. Quite involving at its best and needlessly attenuated and self-consciously “inspiring” at its worst, this Castle Rock presentation from Warner Bros. has all the earmarks of a year-end prestige release, beginning with Tom Hanks at the top of a fine cast. But death row setting, protracted running time and likely divided reviews make this far from a sure thing commercially; it should start strong upon Dec. 10 release, with long-term viability depending upon the tenor of critical response and awards nominations.
Working from King’s 1996 bestseller that was published in six serialized paperback installments, Darabont is nothing if not a fastidious storyteller dedicated to fulsome character detailing and sturdy structural carpentry.
In this new film, as in “Shawshank,” the writer-director proves very adept at lighting numerous long fuses that burn slowly through the yarn’s lengthy telling and finally pay off in some big moments, some more satisfying than others.
It’s a tribute to Darabont’s skill that he is able to sustain interest in these strands over such a long haul; it’s a reflection of his self-indulgence that he should think that this material warrants such doting elaboration.
Told as an epic flashback by a very elderly man who relates his long-secret story to a lady friend at a nursing home, tale is largely set within the modest confines of E block, or death row, at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana in 1935.
Title refers to the shade of the faded linoleum on the floor of the facility, a well-kept bright brick building that resembles a small warehouse.
Presiding over the handful of inmates is head guard Paul Edgecomb (Hanks), a decent middle-aged man dedicated to maintaining as much calm and dignity as possible, given the dire circumstances of his prisoners.
On his staff are his loyal second-in-command, Brutus “Brutal” Howell (David Morse); sensitive greenhorn Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper); old pro Harry Terwilliger (Jeffrey DeMunn); and the group’s wild card, Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), a shrimpy sadist who can get away with all manner of horrible behavior since he’s the son of the governor’s wife.
Behind bars at the outset are good-hearted Creole Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter) and repentant Native American murderer Arlen Bitterbuck (Graham Greene), who’s about to walk the mile to the electric chair.
Shortly joining them, and barely able to fit into his cell, is John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a towering, heavily muscled black man who’s been convicted of killing two little girls. Belying Coffey’s menacing look, however, is his demeanor, which is unvaryingly sweet-natured, polite and openly vulnerable; the greatest concern of this illiterate, childlike giant is that some lights be left on at night since he’s afraid of the dark.
Typical of Darabont’s deliberate approach is the detail with which he presents the rehearsal for the Indian’s execution. A morbidly tense and riveting sequence reveals a startlingly makeshift-looking electric chair and what it takes to successfully put a prisoner to death.
With a cooperative prisoner (an amusing Harry Dean Stanton) serving as a stand-in, Edgecomb proceeds, for the ostensible benefit of newcomer Percy, through every step of the process: the head-shaving, the strapping in, the application of a wet sponge to the man’s head to improve conductivity, the donning of a hood and headcap, the charge-up of electricity, the last words and the final throwing of the switch.
Once Bitterbuck is gone, another prisoner takes his place on death row, “Wild Bill” Wharton (Sam Rockwell), a three-time killer and swamp rat who can only be restrained by periodic stints in a straitjacket and a padded cell.
So, between the opposite poles of good and evil repped by the saintly simpleton Coffey on the one hand and the maniacal Wharton and Percy on the other, Darabont begins heavily developing thoughts about the extremes of which human beings are capable, as represented by their ability to give life and take it away.
The first sign that something miraculous is in the offing comes when Coffey threateningly pulls Edgecomb up against his cell’s bars and grabs his crotch; after a very weird moment, Coffey releases the guard and lets loose from his mouth a flow of flying particles that quickly evaporate.
Immediately, a bladder infection that has caused Edgecomb horrendous pain clears up, which in turn improves his intimate life with his plain-speaking wife (Bonnie Hunt).
More astounding still is Coffey’s restoration of life to Delacroix’s pet mouse that has been stomped to death by Percy. Circumstantial evidence to the contrary, how could such a man have killed two innocent girls, wonders Edgecomb, who has seen more than his share of guilty men in his lifetime.
In between endless taunts from Wharton and the film’s most gruesome sequence, in which Percy deliberately botches Delacroix’s execution so that he literally fries to death in prolonged agony, Edgecomb becomes convinced not only of Coffey’s innocence but of his other-worldly healing powers, leading him to hatch an audacious plot to have the inmate try secretly to cure the advanced cancer consuming the beloved wife (Patricia Clarkson) of the prison’s dignified warden (James Cromwell).
As the date of Coffey’s inevitable execution approaches, the story’s religious flavor and connotations build to a crescendo of intensity; the thematic elements of miracles, guilt, forgiveness and duty are dealt with even-handedly but also conveniently, so as to smooth over the material’s troubling issues with reassuring and hopeful salves.
While “The Green Mile” often grabs, and generally holds, one’s attention through the long journey, there are any number of sequences that could have been tightened or eliminated in the interests of storytelling dispatch. Darabont’s technique readily sustains the thoroughness with which he develops scenes, but his points would still be clear enough without the epic treatment.
And while Hutchison and Rockwell create deliciously hateable figures of pure evil, and Duncan elicits appropriately massive sympathy with his pivotal performance as the agent of goodness, these characters never grow multi-dimensionally and are ultimately more symbolic than credibly real.
All the same, the ensemble acting is of a high order. Hanks excels as the prison guard who is well balanced enough to nearly always handle his many troubles in proper, imaginative fashion.
Along with Duncan, all the other actors playing doomed inmates get their big moments to shine, with Jeter blending courage with emotional fragility as Delacroix.
Percy aside, the prison officials are all portrayed as fundamentally upstanding. Gary Sinise is commanding in his one scene as an attorney who gives his views on Coffey to Edgecomb.
Despite the relatively cramped quarters of E block, pic isn’t bothersomely confined or claustrophobic and looks terrific thanks to Terence Marsh’s outstanding production design, Karyn Wagner’s costumes and David Tattersall’s lensing.
Within individual scenes, Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing is impeccably precise in obtaining maximum values, while Thomas Newman’s generally strong score occasionally slips over into over-stressed grandeur.