By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated December 10, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

With two major motion pictures to his name, writer-director Frank Darabont has set up shop as the go-to guy for overlong, lyrical movies made from strenuously uplifting Stephen King stories set in prisons. Five years after The Shawshank Redemption, the filmmaker returns to the idealistic notion of incarceration as an opportunity for redemption in The Green Mile. And the passage of time has only intensified his fondness for dawdling.

I complain—this is nothing more epic than good old King, rewarding the kids who play nice and punishing the bullies, and a three-hour unspooling seems willful—but only mildly; The Green Mile is a long stretch, but a scenic one. The author’s 1996 novel about 1930s death-row prisoners and their guards, originally published in serial form, has a lot to say about the good and evil of which men are capable. There’s no point in introducing a character as extraordinary as John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a massive, childlike black man convicted of the rape and murder of twin girls, who performs marvels of healing and resurrection (his initials aren’t subtle), without letting the effects of Coffey’s singular saintliness build to a suitable climax. Baleful, bluntly shocking depictions of death by electric chair demand time to do the punishment full, horrible justice. A comic-relief mouse named Mr. Jingles requires his own spotlight (and musical theme).

Besides, Tom Hanks needs room not only to amass the components of another superior mainstream performance, but also to rally another impressive roster of strong individual performers into a sturdy platoon.

Hanks, at this point America’s one-man decency squad, plays Paul Edgecomb, superintendent on E Block at Louisiana’s Cold Mountain Penitentiary, where the lime-colored floor gives the quarters its name. The Green Mile opens with scenes of a cloudy-eyed old man—old Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer)—looking wistful, and for a brief mad moment I thought, What is this, Saving Private Ryan II? But then the story flashes back to 1935 (three years later than in the book, for reasons of film history that become clear in the last reel). And the old guy fortunately vanishes, replaced by a younger Edgecomb, who runs his ward with the assistance of a tight team: the faithful second in command (David Morse), the kid (Private Ryan‘s Barry Pepper), the veteran (Jeffrey DeMunn), and the mean, cowardly, excellently named sadist Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison, in a breakout performance), who happens to be the governor’s nephew.

Psychopathic Wetmore likes to taunt and abuse the prisoners (including Michael Jeter as the flittery Creole so fond of Mr. Jingles), but Edgecomb treats them respectfully. He’s particularly kind to Coffey, who performs his first holy act by way of thanks: The condemned man rids his jailer of an excruciating urinary tract infection by squeezing the trouble out with his gigantic hands, then releasing the affliction through his mouth, where it disperses into the air as a shower of tiny, sooty insects. And that’s just the start of JC’s miracle working.

In its own old-fashioned way, Darabont’s style of picture making is well matched to King-size yarn spinning. The director isn’t afraid to let big emotions and grand gestures linger, much like the buzzing mystery dust puffing out of Coffey’s mouth. Capable of modulating the pitch in domestic scenes between Edgecomb and his supportive wife (wonderful Bonnie Hunt, a pip when it comes to playing real) and in a seamless exchange between Edgecomb and Coffey’s former lawyer (Hanks’ old Forrest Gump buddy Gary Sinise), Darabont can also match the author shock for shock when it comes to horror: In a sickeningly effective scene, he stages an electrocution that goes nightmarishly wrong, literally frying the skin off a man. (”His eyes, now nothing but misshapen globs of white, filmy jelly, had been blown out of their sockets and lay on his cheeks. His eyelashes were gone, and as I looked, the lids themselves caught fire and began to burn,” writes King; that’s a lot to live up to.) The director lays it on—but then, so does the illustrious author.

Which is why I’m willing to ignore my Indiglo watch. Three hours for the forces of good to triumph over the powers of evil, plus assorted graphic violence, special-effects miracles, Tom Hanks, and a mouse? Excessive, but I, like Mr. Jingles, can’t resist the Christmas-season cheese. B

The Green Mile

  • Movie
  • R
  • 188 minutes
  • Frank Darabont