40 for 40 – #12. The Green Mile
Another modern-day masterpiece comes in at #12, with a legendary actor in the prime of his career and the first star-making performance by a now late-great.
Mystery, Magic, Murder, and a Mouse.
And most importantly… the Mile.
#12. The Green Mile (1999) Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan. Directed by Frank Darabont.
I don’t often use the word ‘beautiful’ to describe movies. But, The Green Mile is exactly that.
Now, on first examination, you probably wouldn’t expect a movie about Death Row executions, based on a Stephen King novel to be described that way, but what can I tell you? Such is the beauty of this movie; it defies all expectations and takes us to some very unexpected places.
In 1999, Tom Hanks was in the prime of his (still) stellar acting career. After being known as the comedic, goofy guy from Splash, Big and The ‘Burbs in the eighties, Hanks ‘levelled-up’ in the nineties with back-to-back Oscar wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.
He’d hit the ‘Big Time’; finally considered a powerhouse dramatic actor and able to pick and choose whatever film projects he desired. Thankfully, he chose this one, because in my opinion, The Green Mile is the best movie Hanks has ever been in. And that’s saying a lot.
Director, Frank Darabont, who takes the cake when it comes to directing Stephen King prison movies, moulds this film as though it’s a fairy tale. The sense of wonder, the wide-angle, often filmed-from-above camera shots and the old-school approach to creating the illusion of size between certain characters, shows a style of classic-era directing seldom seen today.
Not to mention, the eerie set design and dark, subliminal undertones of 1930s America, cry out as though the story was crafted by the Brothers Grimm.
Stephen King’s initial book was released as a series of separate installments or episodes, and the movie does a great job of recreating that same feel. Darabont also uses the proven framed story device for this movie, which also works perfectly considering the period piece setting.
The opening slow motion shots of a frantic father (William Sadler) and his search party finding a troubling piece of a girl’s dress immediately informs us that something unsettling is afoot. But then we are whisked away to a retirement home (which oddly enough, resembles the Overlook Hotel from The Shining) and a sweet old man – Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer).
Old Paul has a secret, sneaking off to an undisclosed destination each day. But when a rerun of the movie Top Hat triggers an upsetting memory, Paul’s flashbacks take us into the movie proper. This opening sequence instantly intrigues us as to what will come next, and the movie delivers over and over.
Hanks is wonderful as the younger Edgecomb, the no-nonsense-yet-sympathetic Boss of the Green Mile, named for its jade flooring. His calm approach mirrors the movie, relying on its merits rather than cheap thrills or schlocky jump-scares.
Darabont does a terrific job making sure that the character of Edgecomb is highlighted at all times. For instance, he’s forever cloaked in green, whether on the Mile, sprawled out on the grass after suffering the pain of his bladder infection, enjoying a barbecue with his wife and friends or wandering the emerald hallways of his nursing home. Even the nursing home’s surrounding green woods keep the Mile forever in his thoughts.
Hanks’ supporting cast is as wonderful as he is. David Morse as Brutal offers a new take on the gentle-giant stereotype – a figurative ‘Little John’ to Edgecomb’s ‘Robin Hood’.
Bonnie Hunt is solid as Paul’s devoted wife, Jan. Like many of the cast, this is one of her best performances.
There’s also Harry (Jeffrey DeMunn). And Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper). And then there’s Harry Dean Stanton.
Pepper and DeMunn are perfect in their roles, but it’s Toot and the rehearsal sequence that ultimately gives us a few laughs before the heaviness of the film truly takes hold.
Graham Greene has a small-but-important role as convicted felon, Arlen Bitterbuck and after almost stealing the show in The Fisher King, Michael Jeter returns as everyone’s favourite Cajun circus-mouse trainer, Eduard Delacroix.
And who can forget Sam Rockwell? The guy is an acting genius. His choices (no matter the role) always pay off, and do so once again with his turn as the crazed William ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton.
Whether pretending to be caught in a drugged stupor, playing the fool on the Mile or the haunting reveal of his past (which I’ll get to), Rockwell is incredible.
Obviously, the biggest part of this movie (figuratively and literally) is undoubtedly Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey. Like the drink. Only not spelled the same.
A soft-spoken giant who’s still afraid of the dark, imbued with several mystical powers that beggar belief while at the same time, offer hope in a cold, cruel world.
With Coffey’s supposed crimes spelled out only through other people’s accounts of what they think happened, it helps skew the narrative in several ways before we learn the truth. The Gary Sinise cameo as Coffey’s jaded defence attorney almost warns us not to trust (or fall in love with) Coffey. It helps sow seeds of doubt into our subconscious, just in case Coffey isn’t the teddy bear he appears to be.
Coffey’s healing power is crucial to the film, yet it doesn’t raise its head until an hour and five minutes into the movie. That’s how good this film is. We’re quite content at watching a movie about 1930s Death Row prison guards before the Stephen King stuff actually starts.
I love how the ‘poison’ Coffey ‘takes back’ from people is represented by a cloud of whispy, fly-like things that quickly evaporate. They’re a great, spooky little addition to the movie shrouded by the unexplained.
Adding to these powers, Coffey is also mystically empathetic. He feels the executions of both Bitterbuck and later, Delacroix, and he also sees what Wild Bill has done when the lunatic criminal grabs Coffey’s arm.
All of these powers (along with Duncan’s presence) combine to give us one of the most memorable character performances in Hollywood history.
Coffey is indeed a wonderful character, but every film needs its villain. Well, Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) is one of the most underrated villains in movie history. He’s on par with Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A weasel with family in high places, he is nothing short of a slimy little prick from the very start, with his showboating and cries of, “Dead man walking!” as he first leads Coffey onto the Mile.
The disdain the other guards have for him is instantly on display. As is Percy’s sadistic, bigoted hatefulness, when he busts Del’s fingers. And his insistent need to kill Mr. Jingles hints at darker, potentially-untapped psychopathic tendencies.
Percy is the cause of one of the most horrific movie deaths I’ve ever seen; that of poor Eduard Delacroix.
The vindictive, purposefully-botched execution is remembered by everyone who’s seen this movie. What’s even more horrific than Del’s screams and tortured struggling, is that we have to use our minds to imagine what’s truly happening beneath his death-hood. And as we know, it’s often what you don’t see that sticks in your mind and unsettles your thoughts more than what you do. It’s so bad, even Percy is mortified at what he’s done.
Percy is also responsible for one of the most shocking film moments of all time.
The stomp on poor Mr. Jingles never fails to elicit audible gasps from anyone who sees it.
Luckily, thanks to Coffey, Mr. Jingles gets to recover from Percy’s assault, and we the audience are the beneficiaries. Mr. Jingles’ intelligence is evident from the start, knowing Stephen King’s taste for the supernatural, it’s possible Mr. Jingles is something more than just a mouse. He certainly becomes more than just a mouse by the end of the story, literally and sentimentally.
This movie is a storytelling lesson in how to use setups and pay-offs. The rehearsal execution where we (through Percy) learn the correct procedure and more importantly, the need for a wet sponge, come back into play when Del’s execution goes so terribly wrong. Even Toot’s comical reaction at pretending to be electrocuted by ‘Old Sparky’ is a subtle foreshadowing of the extent of Del’s later suffering.
Wild Bill’s first appearance in the straightjacket and the padded room hints at what’s to come for Percy, as is Percy’s final fate. Wild Bill also pretends to be doped up earlier in the movie, only to wind up legitimately drugged before Edgecomb and his men enact their daring heist. This combines with Warden Hal’s (James Cromwell) sub plot; masterfully set up to provide us with another great sequence of events.
The heist brings a sense of fun and adventure to proceedings, but that table barbecue scene in which Paul and the others discuss whether or not to take Coffey to the warden’s wife, Melinda, (Patricia Clarkson) to cure her brain tumour is a legitimate filmmaking clinic. The writing, acting, directing – everything about that scene is perfectly done.
Or beautifully done, if you will.
The actual ‘heist’ is so superbly handled, that single plot line is almost worthy of being its own film. The fact that it’s just one part of a larger whole is testament to the greatness that is The Green Mile.
Watching Cromwell as Hal portray confusion and fear at first seeing Coffey at his home, then seeing his near-emotional breakdown upon hearing his sick wife cry out in pain, to his utter relief at her recovery is a breathtaking scene. Probably the highlight of Cromwell’s on-screen career for me. It’s a wonderful feel-good moment, and it’s nice to see that at least the warden and his wife get a happy ending.
Although, there is a hint of nefariousness to the scene. When the house rumbles and Coffey is unable to initially cough up the poison like he has done before, we realise that this time, things aren’t going to end well. Coffey has altered nature’s course and someone will have to pay.
Thankfully, we have the perfect pair of villains to accept said payment.
By ‘infecting’ Percy with the poison from Melinda, it seems that Coffey is able to kill two birds with one stone and help set the world right. Although, when the ‘possessed’ Percy guns down Wild Bill, at first we assume it is mere vengeance for the humiliation caused earlier in the film. However, there’s more to it.
The ‘gift’ or ‘piece of himself’ given by Coffey to Edgecomb allows Paul to see the true story of Coffey’s supposed crimes in another brilliantly-directed flashback. The technical beauty of the scene is contrasted by its sickening subject matter, but Darabont handles the reveal so well, it only adds to the overall story and helps us cheer on Coffey’s righteous actions.
To me, the incident with Percy also implies (as the film seems to insist) that Coffey is some kind agent of God, even if he doesn’t know it. His initials are even J.C. (hint hint)…
Adding to this, not only does Coffey heal people, but he punishes the wicked in the most ironically-satisfying ways.
Seeing the abhorrent Percy become a catatonic resident of the very same mental health facility he was destined to transfer to (and no doubt inflict an even greater level of anguish on its patients) is one of the most rewarding villain comeuppances I’ve ever seen.
The ending of The Green Mile really is one that sticks with you long after it’s over. Despite Edgecomb’s offer to release him, Coffey remains adamant that he must still ‘ride the lightning’. He sees it as a mercy killing at this point in his life, unable to stand the cruelty of the world any longer.
Hearing Coffey’s pleas for death is oddly-touching, especially considering how much love he has in his heart, but in the end, Edgecomb tearfully ‘rolls on two’ and Coffey moves on from this world.
But not before getting to see his very own motion picture for the first (and only) time. Coffey watching Top Hat is how we should all watch The Green Mile… in awe of such a beautifully produced film in every way.
King and Darabont leave us with one final twist, however. Old Paul reveals that he (along with Mr. Jingles) has been given the ‘gift’ of an exceptionally long life, thanks to the power infused into them by Coffey.
This gift is more of a curse, though, as Old Paul is doomed to wander the Earth for who knows how long, watching everyone he’s ever known wither and die. It’s the perfect ‘Stephen King ending’, leaving us with that uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomachs, reminiscent of the very best of the The Twilight Zone.
I love it.
The 2000 Academy Awards was certainly one of the times where I strongly feel they got it wrong. Michael Clarke Duncan really deserved the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Or even Doug Hutchison. The film, itself should have won Best Picture to defeat the overrated (in my opinion) American Beauty, and Darabont was also unlucky not to win Best Director.
It doesn’t matter though. Awards are inconsequential so long as you enjoy the movie, and I still immensely enjoy this one, almost twenty years later.
So if you’ve got three hours to spare, and don’t mind revisiting an emotional rollercoaster, sit down with your favourite circus mouse and rewatch The Green Mile.
Just double check your chair isn’t Old Sparky. And if it is, make sure you wet the sponge…
Rating: 5 out of 5 near-immortal mice.
Favourite Moment: Coffey saves Mr. Jingles.
Honourable Mention: The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix.
Next week: #11 – “Is that crazy enough for you? Want me to take a sh*t on the floor?”
Don’t let a pesky bladder infection stop you from grabbing an Unfunny Nerd Tangent shirt! After all, if you do, Mon Milfma will be pleased. Several times…
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