Rated R - Running Time: 3:00 - Released 12/10/99

There's no question that everything Tom Hanks touches turns to gold. But Hanks cannot be given sole credit for the success of The Green Mile. His fine acting is one of many assets that make it a memorable film, assets which include a Stephen King story, direction and screen adaptation by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), and a consistently high-powered supporting cast. Among the several tried-and-true actors, like James Cromwell, Bonnie Hunt, and Michael Jeter, there emerge some relative newcomers, perhaps the most impressive of which is Michael Duncan, an imposing black man who, although as yet has mostly just played bouncers and football players, shows here he has the subtle talent and emotional range for much deeper roles. Like Lenny in Of Mice And Men, Duncan's character, John Coffey, is a simple-minded giant who is gentle as a lamb, afraid of the dark, and occasionally bursts into tears. As the film rolls on, however, through Duncan's acting and the King/Darabont screenplay, we learn that John Coffey has a power much more important than physical might.

The year is 1935. John Coffey is brought to the Louisiana State Penitentiary's death row, nicknamed "the green mile," and into the care of Paul Edgecomb (Hanks) and his staff, because he has been convicted of the brutal rape and murder of two pre-pubescent girls. Though his defense attorney (Hanks's Apollo 13 pal Gary Sinise) believes Coffey is sorry for what he did, there is little doubt in his mind that his client is guilty. After all, he was found holding the two girls in his arms, covered in their blood. Condemned to die by electrocution, he joins the other sorry inhabitants of the mile, including a native American descendant named Arlen Bitterbuck (Graham Greene) and a Cajun man named Eduard Delacroix (Jeter). Although Paul's men are wary of the huge inmate at first, they soon discover that he is incapable of harming them.

Paul's colleagues (David Morse, Jeffrey DeMunn, and Saving Private Ryan co-star Barry Pepper) are generally easygoing fellows disposed toward humane and respectful treatment of the inmates, but the new boy, Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) is the type who enjoys toying with the imprisoned men's dignity. Not only sadistic and mean-spirited, Percy is the nephew of the governor, and therefore cannot be fired. But when an especially dangerous new inmate (Sam Rockwell) arrives, Percy disgraces himself in a variety of ways, not the least of which is failing to stop the criminal in a nearly deadly attack on another guard. So in order to keep Paul and the others from reporting him, Percy cuts a deal. If he is allowed to preside at the next execution, he will transfer to another job that he has been offered. And his part in the resulting fiasco is what causes John Coffey to do what he does.

The Green Mile is as real a supernatural drama as they come. The atmosphere of the 1935 Louisiana prison sullenly echos that of Darabont's Shawshank. The script is heavy with meaning; the symbolism of John Coffey as Jesus Christ is unmistakeable. Hanks and the other guards' acting is impeccable as would be expected, but Duncan and his fellow prisoners are also disturbingly real. Also haunting is Hutchison's portrayal of Percy; his sadism is manifested not so much in gleeful torture as a morbid fascination with the suffering of others. Not merely a traditional black-hatted villain, Hutchison's Percy is truly a sad and conflicted individual. Cromwell, Hunt, and Patricia Clarkson offer moving support in their roles outside the prison setting.

Unfortunately, The Green Mile is not without its flaws. As in Titanic and Private Ryan, it is bookended by an unnecessary modern-day section, where Hanks's character (played by Dabbs Greer) relates his story to an elderly friend and reveals the secrets we didn't need to know. Not only does this prologue and epilogue take away from the impact of the story, it adds numerous extra minutes to the 3-hour running time. If the film had simply been set in 1935, it would have been cleaner and less manipulative, and probably only 2½ hours long. It can be argued that the Hanks section needed to be as long as it is to properly tell the story, but the final fifteen minutes is an unfortunate anticlimax to an otherwise stirring drama. ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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