Green Mile, The

What is it about Frank Darabont and prisons? Or, for that matter, Stephen
King and prisons? Having already idealized prison life in his dreadful version
of Mr. King’s dreadful Shawshank Redemption a few years ago, Mr Darabont
is at it again in the even more dreadful King story, The Green Mile. In
Shawshank, although most of the prisoners were improbably gentle and good
and kind, at least some of them—and more of the guards—were portrayed, not
entirely improbably, as brutes and thugs. In The Green Mile, both
prisoners (death row inmates, no less!) and guards, to say nothing of the
warden, are all saintly figures, barring a couple of bad apples in the barrel,
one guard and one prisoner—played with carpet-chewing enthusiasm on both parts
by Doug Hutchison and Sam Rockwell. Even a fantasy from the Royal
fantasy-factory has got to be anchored to some reality, doesn’t it?

Nor am I using the word “saintly” entirely hyperbolically. At the center of
the action is the gentle giant, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a
simple-minded black man who possesses a miraculous gift of healing. What, you
might ask, is this Christ-figure (note the initials!) doing on death row? Well,
he was found, in rural Louisiana of the 1930s where the story takes place, with
two little white girls who had been raped and murdered, one under each ham-like
arm, howling at the sky like an animal. “I couldn’t help it boss,” he says. “I
tried to take it back, but it was too late.” Of course we, the audience, know at
once—just because it is rural Louisiana in the 1930s—that he didn’t do
it. But only gradually do we learn that by “take it back” he means “bring them
back to life”—a not-unreasonable expectation for him, given that we see him do
precisely this to the corpse of a much-beloved mouse for whom it is, more
shockingly, not too late.

So far, the movie might not seem completely beyond redemption. In fact,
miracles show up better on the silver screen than anywhere else in art in spite
of (or perhaps because of) the realistic bias of the medium. But the giveaway of
the film’s fatal sentimentalism is that damned mouse. Cute in itself, it is
captured and trained to do cute tricks with a wooden spool by an almost equally
cute inmate, Eduard, “Dell,” Delacroix (Michael Jeter)—before he is hauled off
and electrocuted for some grisly murder. The bad guard, Percy (Mr Hutchison),
has it in not only for Dell but also for his adorable little mouse, whom in his
adorable Cajun accent he calls “Mr Jingles.” Percy stomps the latter and rigs
the execution of the former so that he will burn to death instead of being
killed by the jolt of electricity.

John Coffey is able to resurrect the one but not the other. Instead, during
Dell’s horrific execution in another part of the prison, he quivers in instant
sympathy with every volt of electricity. In addition, he cures the head of E
block and chief guard on death row, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) of a urinary tract
infection whose symptoms more closely resemble those of VD or, perhaps a kidney
stone, and, even more remarkably, Melinda (Patricia Clarkson), the beloved wife
of the beloved warden (James Cromwell). Melinda has an inoperable brain tumor
whose symptoms include amnesia, a black eye, and cursing like a sailor. The
warden is desperately sorry about it, as are all his devoted guards (except
Percy, of course), and he is finally prevailed upon to allow gentle John to try
to do for her what he did for the mouse.

John’s curative technique consists of sucking all the bad juju out of the
sick (or dead) person (or mouse) and into his own massive frame as the movies’
patented science-fiction glow illuminates the transaction, plus occasional
poltergeist effects. Thereupon he expels the bad stuff orally into the
atmosphere in the form of a swarm of (apparently) non-biting gnats. The effort
is greater than it appears, however, as immediately afterwards he takes to his
bed. In the case of the tumor he makes an exception to his usual rule and
retains the gnats long enough to breathe them into Percy. Percy instantly goes
nuts, murders Wild Bill (Mr. Rockwell)—who is, of course, the real murderer of
the two little girls—and is carted off to an insane asylum. Serve him right,
too, for stomping Mr Jingles! “I punished dem bad men,” says John Coffey with
satisfaction. “I punished ’em both.”

Alas, his own (undeserved) punishment is not long in coming—after he is
granted his last request, which is to see a movie. “I ain’t never seen me a
flicker show,” he says with a charm worthy of Billy Bob Thornton. So his devoted
guards arrange for a private screening of Top Hat, starring Fred Astaire
and Ginger Rogers, with which he is enchanted. Shortly afterwards, as the
weeping guards strap him into the chair, we hear him singing “Cheek to Cheek”
softly to himself: “Heb’n, I’m in heb’n. . .” And who can doubt it? John Coffey
doesn’t mind dying. “I want it all to be over,” he tells a dewy-eyed Tom Hanks.
“I’m tired, boss…..Most of all I’m tired of people being ugly to each
other….all the pain in the world….Can you understand?” Tom does. And so, in
spite of his bad conscience and his private knowledge of what really happened to
the two little girls, proceeds to fry him.

It seems a little unfair that both he and Mr Jingles are punished for this
obliging act by not being permitted to die themselves. On the other hand, I
could not avoid feeling that their eternal life on this earth in a state of
increasing decrepitude was condign punishment for inflicting upon us over three
hours—which seems only slightly less long than eternity—of this tedious, silly
and grotesquely sentimental twaddle.

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