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August 2000


The Green Mile
Rated: R

CAST: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Sam Rockwell, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter

Frank Darabont


When we first meet Paul Edgecomb, he is an ostensibly cheerful geriatric at a managed-care facility and played by veteran character actor Dabbs Greer. Paul's cheer lessens when he has periodic nightmares, and his eyes reflect a surplus of bittersweet memories. The movie flashes back to 1935, when Paul was head guard on Louisiana's death row, where the walkway to the electric chair is called the green mile. He is now played by Mr. Hanks, one of the few actors who can register uncompromised decency without the taint of pomposity.

Paul is indeed a decent being. He has sympathy for the victims' survivors and understands their desire for retribution. He also has compassion for the convicted inmates, who he feels will pay their debt to society by being executed, and he seeks to make their last few desperate weeks as calm as possible.

A prisoner arrives who will forever change the lives of those around him. John Coffey (played by Michael Clarke Duncan) stands 7 feet tall and is the film's Forrest Gump. A gentle giant, he speaks in sweet, dulcet tones, but his limited vocabulary sometimes creates problems. Even under duress, he keeps thinking the good thoughts. Yet he's convicted of raping and murdering two young girls. Eventually, Paul learns that John possesses magical healing powers. He feels that a person guilty of such heinous crimes would not be blessed with such positive forces and hopes that John can be proved innocent.

Balancing the goodness of John and Paul are two extraordinarily wicked creatures – serial killer "Wild Bill'' Wharton (Sam Rockwell) and sadistic guard Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), who loves tormenting prisoners while reminding his kinder co-workers that he's untouchable, being related to the governor. There's even a death-row mascot, a lovable mouse named Mr. Jingles, who's as cuddly as a kitten. (Between The Green Mile and Stuart Little, pet-store owners may have to restock their rodent supply. Not even Mickey was as cute a mouse as Mr. Jingles.)

Eventually, all the humans, plus the lone rodent, are linked together in an admirable example of that sometimes-neglected cinematic virtue, linear storytelling.


Cynics may snicker that only Hollywood could release a feel-good death-row movie. The truth is that only a first-rate filmmaker could create a feel-good death-row movie that happens to be one terrific flick.

The Green Mile also deals with such matters as miscarriages of justice, botched executions and bladder infections. But director/screenwriter Frank Darabont and a superb cast headed by Tom Hanks blend the elements into a rich and compelling brew, one that's emotionally rewarding without pandering to its audience.

The movie is Mr. Darabont's first feature since 1994's The Shawshank Redemption, which was also based on a prison tale by Stephen King. The prolific Mr. King wrote The Green Mile as a six-part serialized novel in 1996. Mr. Darabont compressed the episodic story line into a coherent whole. But coherence necessitates length, and the movie clocks in at three hours. In this case, it's gratifying to watch a filmmaker meticulously set up characterizations and situations, and the three hours pass like two, albeit no less than two.

Occasionally, Mr. Darabont goes for overkill. An electrical storm during a horrifying execution is unnecessary. And with the exception of loathsome Percy, the relationship between guards and inmates exudes such warmth, you almost expect them to form a friendship circle and sing "Kumbaya.'' But considering the movie's overall impact, these are minor quibbles.

The Green Mile proves without a doubt that Mr. Hanks is a superb actor and not just a likable personality. One of the tests of good acting is how well the actor "listens.'' Much of Mr. Hanks' role requires him to listen carefully and respond with the minimal emotion demanded by his position as head guard. He does so exquisitely.

Mr. Duncan gives a heart-rending depiction of goodness in its most primitive form, while Mr. Hutchison and Mr. Rockwell offer repellent portraits of the most primitive forms of evil. Obviously an actor-friendly director, Mr. Darabont gets similarly strong performances from David Morse, Barry Pepper and Jeffrey DeMunn as sympathetic guards, James Cromwell as a paternalistic warden, Michael Jeter as an ill-fated inmate and Bonnie Hunt as Mr. Hanks' understanding wife.


The Green Mile is blue-ribbon moviemaking. It's not ashamed of having a heart, but it's got the brains to match.

Philip Wuntch
of Dallas Morning News