The Green Mile (review)

Crime and Punishment

With The Green Mile, Stephen King’s serialized novel, I was like those people who waited on the docks in New York for the latest installment of a Dickens opus to arrive from London. I ran to the bookstore the day each new chapter was released, eager to scarf it up and then annoyed that I had to wait six weeks for the next. Write faster, dammit! I wanted to yell at King.

Stephen King is the Charles Dickens of the 20th century, I think, telling tales about ordinary folk that nevertheless resonate with the biggest of issues: dreams and miracles, death and life, pain and love, redemption and salvation. He captures the details of life in the 20th century the way that Dickens captured those same details a hundred years earlier. Who else but King could make a both a clever mouse and a urinary tract infection, of all things, key plot devices in a Christ allegory?
The filmed version of The Green Mile — adapted and directed by Frank Darabont, who turned another piece of King’s fiction into the modern classic The Shawshank Redemption — is three hours long, and worth every minute of its running time. In King’s best work — like The Green Mile and The Stand — the characters are people to fall in love with, whose stories we want to go on and on forever. At the end of The Green Mile, the film, I felt, well, like a character out of Dickens: Please, sir, may I have some more?

At Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks: Toy Story 2, You’ve Got Mail) is a guard on death row, called the green mile for the pale lime-colored tiles of the block’s floor. The year is 1935. Paul, used to watching over hardened criminals, is taken aback by the new prisoner on the mile: John Coffey (Michael Duncan: Armageddon, Bulworth), a giant of a man whose primary concern is whether they leave a light on after bedtime — he’s afraid of the dark. Sentenced to death for a horrific crime, Coffey, his intimidating size aside, nevertheless seems an unlikely convict. After Coffey startles and astounds Paul by curing his excruciating urinary tract infection — Coffey’s healing hands seems to suck the sickness out of Paul, which Coffey then exhales in a cloud of sooty black insects — Paul grows more and more convinced that not only is Coffey innocent of the crime of which he was convicted but that he is an emissary of God.

The allegory is not subtle — John Coffey’s initials pretty much tell all — but the ways in which God, or Coffey, or whoever, wreak their vengeance and do their good are subtle and effective. “The things that happen in this world,” Paul says at one point, “it’s a wonder God allows it.” And yet God (and the story’s meta-god, King) juggles the numerous characters — from the “mean, careless and stupid” guard, Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison, best known as The X-Files infamous Eugene Tooms and surely on his way to stardom after this performance), to Mr. Jingles the talented pet mouse of a death row inmate — in such a way as to imply a large master plan.

Crime comes in many forms in The Green Mile that have nothing to do with courts and prisons and death penalties — Percy’s cruelty, which takes many facets; one character’s unfairly debilitating and potentially fatal illness; the racism of the lawyer (Gary Sinise: Forrest Gump, in a riveting cameo) who defended Coffey, who is black — and punishment is appropriately poetic. And I wonder: If Coffey is a stand-in for Jesus, then Paul Edgecomb is surely Pontius Pilate, and though he is convinced that it would be wrong to execute Coffey, he is equally aware that it is still his job to do so. Does Paul commit a crime in the eyes of God by carrying out his job, and is the secret that haunts the elderly Paul (Dabbs Greer) a part of his punishment?

Visually, The Green Mile is stunning, with moments that are funny, ironic, and emotionally devastating, sometimes all at once. Mr. Jingles the mouse sneaks up on Percy, preening in a mirror, and sits there grooming himself with his little paws, as if he’s poking fun at Percy. In a rehearsal for an execution, the guards use the janitor (Harry Dean Stanton: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) as a substitute for the condemned man, and the simultaneous aloofness and seriousness with which they all can do this job is disquieting. The moment that really shattered me, however, is the fulfillment of Coffey’s final request before his execution: He had told Paul that he is “tired of people being ugly to each other,” and now he gets a heartbreaking glimpse into a world where people aren’t mean to each other.

Enthralling and literally miraculous, The Green Mile has become an instant favorite of mine, just as its source material did.

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