The Green Mile

Apr 14, 1999 at 12:00 am

There are two important points to consider when looking at Frank Darabont's The Green Mile. The first is that, for some reason, it's really tough for American movies to be morally instructive and poignant without turning into mundane Hallmark cards. The second is that Stephen King's large pool of titillating but one-dimensional novels is hardly a likely place to find a deeply moving, imaginative story that maintains its composure.

On both counts, The Green Mile is a surprising exception.

But those aren't the only challenges this inspiring movie faces. Set in the Depression, it mixes stark realism with flights of imagination and the supernatural, weaving a murder mystery into a story about miracles. For the most part, The Green Mile's makers do a fine job of balancing these contrasting elements and shifting gears from real-life drama to intermittent encounters with the paranormal.

The movie begins with an old man in a retirement home who breaks down crying, then sits at a table with a lady friend for tea and begins to share his memories of a man named John Coffey (Michael Duncan). When the old man, Paul Edgecomb, was 44 years old, he worked as a guard (Tom Hanks) on death row in a prison in the South where Coffey and three other inmates were waiting to walk the green mile (the hall that leads to the electric chair).

If the message behind The Green Mile is that we humans kill what we love, the Jesus-like Coffey's call to action is one of quiet acceptance. His contemplative, benevolent (if simple) wisdom is much needed in the dank, barred world where his only friends are the prison officials, a field mouse and his fellow inmates, with the criminally insane murderer William "Wild Bill" Wharton (Sam Rockwell) as the most notable among them.

Because Edgecomb as a younger man is thrown unaware into an ethical, spiritual, professional and emotional whirlwind of trouble and epiphanies, his character is easy to identify with and essential to the plot. And that's much more than can be said for Edgecomb as an old man.

The two scenes from the retirement home in which the old Edgecomb tells his story flank this very long, complex movie in the same way that John Cameron's super-Hallmark card Titanic was framed by the memories of an old woman. That same lazy narrative solution put to work in The Green Mile is a relatively small but frustrating flaw in an otherwise engrossing and convincing movie.

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