BUNGLED EXECUTION - 'The Green Mile'

By Alleva, Richard | Commonweal, February 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

BUNGLED EXECUTION - 'The Green Mile'


Alleva, Richard, Commonweal


The Green Mile does for capital punishment what Life Is Beautiful did for the Holocaust: It takes a monumental, harrowing subject, crying out for the utmost tact and moral inquisitiveness, and uses it as grist for the mill of pop entertainment.

Let it be said that The Green Mile is better than Life Is Beautiful. Roberto Benigni couldn't give us a plausible Italian town for the first half of his movie or a believably horrifying concentration camp for its conclusion, but director-writer Frank Darabont has no such problems with setting or atmosphere. The death row he's fabricated is credible, being grim but not operatically doomy. The guards behave as good men always do when they have worked too long and too closely together: they're aware of one another's annoying tics and habits but have grown past the point (well, almost) of being aggrieved by them (though the one guard capable of cruelty has earned the hatred of guards and convicts alike). The Depression-era South that lies outside the prison is also captured with sufficient verisimilitude. So much of the story (based on a novel by Stephen King) is fantastic that, to be tenable, it needed to be anchored in an initial realism, and this Darabont has achieved.

The events inside this setting-the arrival on death row of the scarily huge but utterly saintly condemned man, John Coffy, and the healing miracles he performs; the troubles set off by the vicious guard Percy and an even more vicious prisoner nicknamed "Wild Bill"; the changes brought into the guards' lives when they come to believe in Coffy's innocence without knowing how to save him-slide in and out of the realm of the supernatural, but Darabont possesses the requisite cinematic skills to keep us believing in what we see, at least at the moment of seeing it. His writing stumbles into purple patches (a distinctly nonliterary prisoner suddenly murmurs of his young wife being "bare- breasted in the firelight") but, on the whole, a satisfying terseness and an unobtrusive local flavor inform the dialogue. The visuals have purple patches, too (the wicked guard seen from above at the bottom of a spiral walkway as if he were already in the pit of hell), but mainly the camera nestles close to the guards and cons as they converse, josh, and bicker, and the big close-ups make us the intimates of these men as well as their audience. The editing keeps the action at a nice, ambling pace until it must slam us with some violence, and then slam us it does.

First among equals in the fine cast is Tom Hanks as Paul, the head guard, but I'm not sure I have any adjectives left with which to praise Hanks. In the past decade he's done the best character work since the heyday of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, but, unlike them, Hanks works without much make-up. Here, he's gained some weight and adopted an accent but, otherwise, it is what's going on behind his eyes that creates an entirely new character, distinct from anything he's done before. As "Brutal," a guard who's anything but, David Morse has virile dignity to spare. Sam Rockwell's "Wild Bill" is scary and funny, sometimes simultaneously. Tricky staging makes the 6'5" Michael Clarke Duncan look seven feet tall, but it is Duncan's inherent dignity and groundswelling voice that make his portrait of John Coffy mountainous.

Why then is this skillfully crafted movie meretricious?

It seeks to persuade us of two things: (a) capital punishment is wrong; and (b) contact with a saintly personality can uplift one's life forever. Worthy ideas, but look at Darabont's methods of persuasion.

Capital punishment. We see three electric-chair executions, the second especially horrible because it's carried out improperly, but all of them unnerving. What's the point of this? That electrocution is horrible? Then why can't a pro-capital-punishment advocate simply indicate painless execution as a solution?

We learn that one condemned man is innocent.

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BUNGLED EXECUTION - 'The Green Mile'
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