Is there any filmmaker who’s made more money and built a bigger reputation on fewer films than Frank Darabont? Quick, name any two films he made. OK, you forgot “The Majestic” and “The Mist,” right?
But I’m sure you remembered “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile.” In 1994, as director and screenwriter, Frank Darabont made “Shawshank,” a prison picture with little advance publicity and a modest cast. After a slow start it gathered momentum and went on to become a popular favorite. Obviously, Darabont hoped to duplicate this success with 1999’s “The Green Mile,” another prison yarn adapted from a story by Stephen King, this time with a healthy dose of fantasy thrown in and starring one of Hollywood’s biggest names, Tom Hanks. The Academy nominated “The Green Mile” for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Nevertheless, whether you take to the newer film the way you probably took to “Shawshank” is problematical. I loved the earlier film but found “The Green Mile” somewhat less so and in some ways a little frustrating. In any case, after Warners gave “Shawshank” the Blu-ray Book treatment, they have now done the same for “The Green Mile,” with similarly impressive results.
“The Green Mile” tells its story in flashback, as Paul Edgecomb (Hanks), a former head guard in charge of death row at Louisiana’s Cold Mountain Penitentiary, looks back from the present to an exceptional year in 1935. The film’s title refers to the color of the floor the prisoners walk to the electric chair. “The floor was the color of faded limes,” says Paul. Edgecomb’s fellow guards are basically a good, compassionate lot, except for one rotten egg, the obligatory sadist who delights in tormenting prisoners, getting away with it because he’s the governor’s nephew. When the movie opens, a new inmate arrives, a gigantic black man named John Coffey, convicted of raping and killing two young white girls. It doesn’t take Edgecomb long to realize that Coffey is unusual in more than size; he can perform miracles, curing Edgecomb of a severe bladder infection that had been giving him grief for some time. After Coffey carries out several more wondrous feats, the guards question his guilt, the American justice system, the nature of God’s ways, and themselves.
For any good fantasy to work, it must create its own believability through internal consistency; that is, it must fashion a universe, no matter how imaginative, that is convincing enough for viewers to suspend their disbelief without hesitation. Herein lies the problem: “The Green Mile” defies credibility at nearly every turn and only makes up for it through the sheer power of its cast’s performances. For instance, where does John Coffey come from? He comes out of nowhere, with no background, no record, no family, no connections, apparently to kill two children. The film tries to justify his mysterious presence by saying that during the Depression numerous men wandered aimlessly about, but it’s an ineffectual excuse. Does the film mean for us to take Coffey metaphorically? Is he an enigmatic Christ figure? When Coffey arrives at the prison, he is almost inarticulate, yet shortly thereafter he is conversing normally. Why, then, could he not have given a better account of himself at his trial? Would no one listen to him? Except for the circumstances of the time and place, racism is barely an issue in the picture. Then, too, how has Coffey gone though a lifetime of existence without anyone noticing his extraordinary powers? Why has no one exploited his supernatural talents? And why does Coffey himself hate his gifts so much, to the point of dying for them? Are we to interpret him as some kind of martyr? If the script had articulated the good vs. evil, innocence vs. guilt, or just plain religious implications more clearly, perhaps we wouldn’t have to ask such questions.
No, “The Green Mile” is not the kind of film that bears up well under scrutiny. Yet it works perfectly well as a fable (even if the fable’s ultimate message is somewhat vague). It’s best just to accept the movie as it is and not think too much about it. Otherwise, we would have to grumble that like so much of Stephen King’s writing, the three-hour story line goes on too long; that there are things in the plot that are extraneous; that the ending, which should have been poignant and stirring, is oddly flat; that there is one anticlimax piled on another; that most of the narrative events are entirely predictable; and that the whole affair wallows in sentimentality. In any case, the film suffers most by not having “Shawshank’s” Morgan Freeman narrating it.
As I’ve said, however, despite the clichés and stereotypes the film’s cast manages to lift it from the depths of the commonplace and make watching it enjoyable. Hanks, as usual, is solid and effective, as always the modern-day Jimmy Stewart, the unassuming Everyman. Never mind that Hanks has been playing the same part for far too long or that Edgecomb is the same guy who saved Private Ryan. I suppose if the formula works for Hanks, he should exploit it for all it’s worth.
Michael Clarke Duncan plays John Coffey, and the fact that the Academy nominated him for a Best Supporting Actor award is pretty much self explanatory. The actor I most remember, though, is David Morse as Edgecomb’s friend and sympathetic fellow guard. As officer Brutus Howell, Morse is the epitome of kindness, understanding, and simple decency. Of equal importance in the film are Doug Hutchison as the sadistic Percy Wetmore; Bonnie Hunt as Edgecomb’s patient wife; Gary Sinese as Coffey’s defense attorney; and veterans James Cromwell as the prison warden; Graham Greene, Michael Jetter, and Sam Rockwell as prison inmates; Dabbs Greer as the older Edgecomb; and Harry Dean Stanton as a prison trustee (there is even a character in the film named Dean Stanton, I assume an inside joke).
Yet as good as the supporting players are, the most-outstanding character in the movie is Mr. Jingles, a mouse that befriends and entertains some of the men. I told you this thing was sentimental.
Warner Brothers present the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec. The colors show up deeper and richer than ever before, and, naturally, the detailing is also better, probably as close to the original print as the transfer can get. However, as good as it, the image remains a touch soft and gritty in more than a few scenes, and the overall hues are most often too intense, with facial tones, especially, looking quite dark, overly deep and saturated.
The audio, which now comes via lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 as well as regular Dolby Digital 5.1, is as realistic and well balanced as ever. The sound was nominated for an Oscar, and you can understand why when you hear its lifelike nuances. I should remind readers, though, that while the soundtrack conveys a wide front-channel stereo image, it doesn’t do much in the rear channels except reinforce a truthful sonic ambiance–thunder, music, background noises, material of that sort. This is a film that doesn’t try to wow an audience with special sonic effects for their own sake. As for the new TrueHD, as always, it appears smooth and powerful.
Warners carry over the extras from the Special Edition DVD set, and again they are in standard definition. Here, you’ll find an audio commentary by director Frank Darabont, and while three hours is a long time to listen to one fellow talk, Darabont gives it his best shot, saying at the end that he recorded it over a period of many months; maybe that’s how we should listen to it. Next, you’ll find two documentaries: The first is “Walking the Mile: The Making of The Green Mile,” about twenty-five minutes, which, I’m afraid, doesn’t really provide a lot of information we don’t already know. The second documentary is newer and more satisfying. It’s called “Miracles and Mystery: Creating The Green Mile,” about 102 minutes, and divided into six parts. It will even tell you more than you probably wanted to know about the mouse.
Then, there are a few deleted scenes totaling about three minutes, with optional director commentary; Michael Clarke Duncan’s screen tests, about eight minutes; Tom Hanks’s makeup tests as the older Paul, a part that eventually went to Dabs Greer; “A Case Study,” a five-minute explanation of a teaser trailer; the teaser trailer itself; and a conventional widescreen theatrical trailer.
Wrapping things up, the movie contains fifty-three scene selections; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Turkish spoken languages; French, Spanish, Chinese Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish, Thai, and Turkish subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.
The disc comes housed in an attractive, thirty-five page Blu-ray Book filled with pictures and text, the disc fastened to the back cover as in most Digipak-type cases.
If the Academy Awards were a pissing contest, “The Green Mile” would win hands down. You’ll see more people relieving themselves in more different ways than in any film around. Along with a particularly grisly execution, viewers might prepare themselves for some small, R-rated discomfort.
I have to admit that despite my reservations, the older I get and the more often I watch this movie, the more I like it. I suppose the new high-definition picture and sound don’t hurt, either.
“What happens on the green mile, stays on the mile. Always has.”