With the star power of Tom Hanks (heard recently in "Toy Story 2"), an all-star cast of supporting players, an epic running-time of over three hours, and a powerfully-told story that lays bare the triumphs and tragedies of the human condition, "The Green Mile" is a film that positively deserves an Oscar nomination. Based on the serialized Stephen King novel of the same name, "The Green Mile" marks the return of Frank Darabont to the director's chair, who directed the cinematic adaptation of "The Shawshank Redemption" five years ago, another Stephen King prison drama. And though the film's intensity occasionally lapses from its meandering narrative and unnecessary bookends, "The Green Mile" remains riveting nonetheless, touching on themes of redemption and justice, while illustrating how, for evil to sustain itself, that it only requires good men to do nothing.
True to the source material, the entire story is told by an aging resident of a nursing home, recalling his days as the head guard at Coal Mountain Louisiana State Penitentiary during the Depression. The young Paul Edgecomb (played by Hanks) is a righteous man who treats the inmates with the utmost respect and dignity, and instills his sense of right-and-wrong into the men that work under him, including his best friend and confidant Brutus 'Brutal' Howell (David Morse of "The Negotiator"), rookie Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper, who costarred with Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan"), and veteran Harry Terwilleger (Jeffrey DeMunn of "The X-Files: Fight the Future"). Together, they are in charge of E-block (which is also referred to as 'the Green Mile' for its lime-colored linoleum floors), which houses the prison's death row inmates, including Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter of "Jakob the Liar") and Native American Arlen Bitterbuck (Graham Greene, seen recently in "The Grey Owl").
Unbeknownst to its guard and prisoner denizens, the unassuming Green Mile is about to become a nexus for good and evil. First, there is the new guard Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison who played Tooms on "The X-Files"), a well-connected and sadistic man who relishes the opportunity to watch an execution. Then there is the arrival of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan of "Armageddon"), an imposing giant of a man sentenced to the electric chair after being found with the bloodied bodies of two young girls in his arms. 'Wild Bill' Wharton (Sam Rockwell) is bad news all around, an incorrigible troublemaker on death row for killing three people during a botched robbery. Finally, there is Mr. Jingles, an endearing mouse that quickly becomes the unofficial mascot for the Green Mile.
The focus of Paul's attention falls on John Coffey, who despite his immense stature and muscled frame, is a man whose simple-minded and gentle mannerisms betray no violence or malice. How can a man afraid of the dark have it in him to commit such depraved murders, Paul asks himself, which spurs him on to investigate the veracity of his prisoner's guilt. However, all doubt concerning the man's innocence is erased when John suddenly reaches through the bars to grab Paul. But instead of an attack, Paul witnesses a miracle, as the prisoner somehow cures him of a recurrent bladder infection, expelling the 'sickness' as a cloud of black flies that quickly dissipates. With such a discovery, Paul becomes increasingly apprehensive about carrying out the inevitable endpoint of John's sentence, since he knows in his heart that God would not put such a 'gift' in the hands of someone capable of the evil which John has been accused.
Remaining consistent to its source material, "The Green Mile" unfolds like a vast novel, weaving intricate subplots as it hurtles towards the crescendo of emotional intensity in its denouement. And despite the narrative asides, Darabont's script is able to hold your attention and capture the imagination with its well-developed characters, providing engaging detail to the ins-and-outs of life on the Green Mile. And though the harsh realities of prison life, especially execution by electric chair, are presented in an uncompromising and unsightly manner, "The Green Mile" also uplifts with its touching portrayal of the simple acts of kindness and dignity can flourish in such a dismal place.
Part of why "The Green Mile" works so well lies in its performances, which are in abundance. Hanks, the Everyman actor of our generation, gives another outstanding performance as the film's protagonist and emotional center, as he did in "Saving Private Ryan". Carrying equal weight performance-wise is Duncan, whose touching portrayal of the gentle giant deserves a nod from the Academy. Hutchison, who seems eternally typecast in unbalanced characters, does a good job of playing the oily guard that nobody likes. Rockwell, as the film's other embodiment of evil, acquits himself nicely as the maniacal piece of trailer trash that audiences will love to hate. In addition, the film boasts a number of supporting roles of note, including James Cromwell ("The General's Daughter") as the prison's warden, Harry Dean Stanton ("The Mighty") as an amusing volunteer for 'practice executions', Bonnie Hunt ("Random Hearts") as Paul's wife, and a cameo by Gary Sinise ("Snake Eyes") as John Coffey's defense attorney.
"The Green Mile" is one sure Oscar bet going into the final weeks of 1999. Despite some opportunities for tightening up the storytelling, particularly a completely unnecessary present-day footnote, this adaptation of the Stephen King novel is certain to inspire reflection with its insightful look at matters of redemption, atonement, justice, and the small miracles that can be found in the most unlikeliest places.