The Green Mile
Directed by Frank Darabont
Produced by Frank Darabont & David Valdes
With hindsight, maybe it would have been nice to have chosen a Christmas film for the first of my movie blogs. As it turned out, I chose The Green Mile. Now I feel neither Christmassy nor particularly inspired by the idea of a ‘season of goodwill’. The closest The Green Mile comes to festive fun is the colour green, the colour that was most closely associated with Christmas prior to its corporate Coca-Cola takeover. But, as those who have seen the film will know, The Green Mile was probably never designed to act as a cheeky stocking filler since its release way back in December 1999. Offering it as a Christmas present would be like rocking up to the White House on the 4th July wearing a full Union Jack Suit...
That of course isn’t to diminish the film. The Green Mile is an intensive, rather claustrophobic assessment of a 1930s American Penitentiary. It feels right at home in some of the classic and moving portrayal’s of America in this era, and I was reminded at times of the depleting realism of something like John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Furthermore, at 188 minutes in length The Green Mile is an epic cinematic production, perhaps one of the few things in life that takes longer to digest than Tom Hanks’ CV.
Clearly I’m not going to be able to cover all of the incredible elements of this film in this short blog, but here are some of the things that stood out.
Tom Hanks & Cast
Someone once told me (I can’t vouch for its factual accurateness) that if you watched all of David Attenborough’s television screen time back-to-back it would take you over 3 years to complete. Although younger than good ol’ David, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same statistic could be trotted out for Tom Hanks. The guy must be a ridiculous workaholic, but I really like how each of his on-screen characters are somehow different and personable. Perhaps this is just the variety of roles that Hanks has enjoyed (in the way that typecast actors like Hugh Grant and Vince Vaughan will probably never get the opportunity to exhibit on screen) but everyone of Hanks’ characters feels like a different person in costume. I was revisiting The Terminal last week and it seems almost unbelievable that the same person who plays the quirky Viktor Navorski is also the deadbeat Prison Officer Paul Edgecomb. Even Hanks’ depiction of the character’s urinary tract infection seems realistic and left both myself and the people I watched the film with grinding our teeth in dismay as the poor man tries unsuccessfully to give back to nature. For me, this is another great performance from Hanks, someone who genuinely has earned their place on the Hollywood A-list.
The repertoire between characters in The Green Mile is an important component of the film’s overall success. The literal giant Michael Clarke Dunne is emphatic as John Coffey, as is Doug Hutchinson, who strikes a great balance between sadistic and coward in his portrayal of character Percy Wetmore.
I’ve always felt incorporating surrealism into a straight production is pretty hard to pull off successfully. One the stage, this was something Harold Pinter was able to achieve, but I can think of fewer successful iterations on the big screen. The Green Mile is one such film that gets it right. The character of John Coffey is built up slowly, he resolves Paul Edgecomb’s urinary infection, saves the life of the rather cute mouse called Mr. Jingles and then exhibits the full-blown miracle healing by curing Melinda (Warden Hal Moores’ wife) of her brain tumour.
This build-up of the surrealism means it creeps up slowly as being the central focus of the film, rather than being an obvious theme early on. This means it slowly dawns on the audience the weight of the decision left to Prison Officer Paul Edgecomb, in that he alone will have to decide on the fate of a man endowed with supernatural powers of healing.
Religion and Race
Films that make analogies to the death of Christ or classic biblical stories run the risk of either being a bit cheesy or falling flat on their face. The Green Mile has no shortage of religious references, with John Coffey’s character and execution clearly alluding to the crucifixion of Christ and generally the film does it in an interesting and thought-provoking manner.
Perhaps one of the most haunting moments in the film is John Coffey’s final wish to watch a movie the day before his execution. The movie he sees, Top Hat, depicts Fred Astaire playing a well-dressed American dancer and singing the lyrics “I’m in heaven.” Heaven on earth, depicted though the slow waltz of two wealthy, white Americans is unobtainable to the poor and black John Coffey. It seems like a rather profound moment in an otherwise simple scene and one that cleverly throws back to the beginning of the film in Paul Edgecomb’s nursing home.
The Green Mile is haunting, clever and boasts as many analogies as any film can handle without compromising on plot. With an exceptional cast and exceptional performances it’s no surprise to me this film is hailed as an all-time classic.