The Green Mile (1999, Frank Darabont)

The Green Mile takes place in a world where racism wasn’t really a big problem in 1930s Mississippi—not even grieving father Nicholas Sadler is going to say something racist to the Black convicted murderer of his daughters, Michael Clarke Duncan—but it also takes place in a world where the Christian God is real so… I mean, if you’re going to give them God, might as well let them magic away the racism. Because while the film’s a character study, it’s not about death row cell block captain Tom Hanks overcoming racism—no saviors, white or otherwise, possible here—it’s about him learning the cost of betraying a miracle. But without much religiosity. Screenwriter and director Darabont has to tow a very fine line to pull it all off and tow that line he does. Unwaveringly.

Even in the exceptionally tricky second-to-third act transition. Even at the finish with the lengthy narration. Whatever Darabont tries, he accomplishes, but not without a lot of effort from everyone involved. Green Mile is downright fastidious.

The film opens with old man in a retirement home Dabbs Greer living a somewhat mysterious life. Residents aren’t allowed unaccompanied on the grounds—one imagines it’s Maine, because Green Mile’s Stephen King—but he sneaks out every day to a mysterious cabin in the woods. He’s got a lady friend, Eve Brent, and pretty soon he’s sitting her down to tell his story.

We know younger Greer is Hanks because of one of boldest moves in film narrative—we know Matt Damon’s not going to end up turning into Greer because of a bladder infection. It is the story of Greer’s worst bladder infection, cut to multiple Academy Award winner Tom Hanks essaying peeing with an untreated bladder infection in a prison in Mississippi in 1935.

And from that moment, Hanks nails the part. All the way through the next two hours and fifty minutes or whatever. No matter what happens—no matter who shows up in a stunning performance—it’s always Hanks’s movie, it’s always about his performance. When Darabont’s got to close his bookend, he takes it into account and figures a way to plug it in (though, post-CGI de-aging, there’s now a lot to say about using actors of different ages playing the same part and how it affects the verisimilitude of a picture).

Hanks runs the death row cell block–The Green Mile—as a place of serenity. No reason to agitate anyone. When the film starts, there are two prisoners awaiting execution—Graham Greene and Michael Jeter. The film takes place over a summer, with the time somewhat tracked by the executions. All of the execution scenes are tough, a couple more than others, and Darabont takes the time to inspect the men conducting the executions.

Green Mile’s a man movie. There are a couple significant parts for women, but it’s about the guys. It doesn’t try to comment toxic masculinity, but still does so because of the nature of the piece and of Darabont’s interests in the relationships between the characters. It gets into class a bit—and intentionally—while directly avoiding the race issues; Green Mile is kind of Norman Rockwell Gothic; Capracorn but sour. None of the characters are allowed to express themselves fully at work—Hanks and main work sidekick David Morse have an almost entirely silent understanding of one another—and contemporary, religiously informed gender roles don’t allow them to speak about it at home. But not even the inmates are allowed to express themselves, though sometimes it’s because they’re not able.

For example, Duncan’s character. He arrives almost immediately once the flashback starts, during an incredibly efficient introduction to Doug Hutchison’s vile twerp of a prison guard, and towers over the rest of the cast. Duncan’s just over 6’5” but Morse’s 6’4”, so they exaggerated things. Now, Duncan being a gentle giant—convicted of terrible crimes but afraid of the dark—allows Darabont to keep him passively imposing. More on the scenery than the scenes. Not having Duncan’s lack of character arc be a monumental cop out is kind of Darabont’s most incredible work, at least in how he plotted the script. It does help, of course, Duncan’s character’s initials are “J.C.” Because if you’re going to do space wizard magic, you can be obvious about it.

With Duncan and then final death row addition, Sam Rockwell, we don’t see them experience their time on death row. We see how guards Hanks, Morse, Hutchison, Barry Pepper, and Jeffrey DeMunn react to their experience of it. Greene and Jeter (especially Jeter), we see them experience it. Jeter works as a common ground between the narrative distances, which generally stick to Hanks with occasional exception. Nothing like someone not at Normandy having a video game flashback of D-Day, but, you know, not being present for mouse tricks.

More on mouse tricks in a second.

First. Rockwell. Green Mile’s got two kinds of exceptional performances. Showy and staid. Hanks and Morse give exceptional staid performances. Jeter, Hutchison, Rockwell, they give exceptional showy performances. Jeter’s is kind of staid, but he’s playing a Cajun so it’s also kind of showy. And even Hutchison gets to play showy as staid, because he’s a deceptive little shit.

Rockwell’s playing a caricature of an evil redneck; he’s playing the (literal and intentional) antithesis of Duncan, a wild cracker, loud, lanky, vicious. He’s the only character run the movie who’s ever outwardly a racist (oh, to live in Stephen King’s 1930s). Though—side note—for some reason Gary Sinise really wanted to do an uncredited cameo as an evil shit who says racist things but without the n-word. It’s a weird stunt cameo. Sinise is great but… it’s not exactly part where you want to say it doesn’t feel like acting.

Anyway.

Rockwell.

He doesn’t have an arc. He’s just a contained tornado, waiting to get loose and destroy. It’s an amazing performance. Hanks and Rockwell in the first tier of performances, Jeter and Hutchison in the second, Morse and Bonnie Hunt, then everyone else. Everyone else is great too. I mean, maybe James Cromwell is only good but he’s got the most constrained gender role part—he’s not allowed to empathize with sick wife Patricia Clarkson because society, only care for her. While able to empathize with Hunt, who plays Hanks’s wife. Never addressing toxic masculinity, but always being about toxic masculinity.

Hunt’s got the Morse part at home, basically. Supporting Hanks while showing enough agency the characters never seem hollow. No one in Green Mile ever gets stuck trying to round out a caricature, instead they only have so long to establish themselves. Darabont bakes in character and only gives his actors so long to essay it. Green Mile’s three hours but it’s always in motion, steadily progressing toward the inevitable.

And Duncan, waiting patiently in his cell, figures into that inevitable, both in the narrative and as a running symbol. Duncan’s good. It’s a hard part, requiring a lot of nimbleness—Duncan, Rockwell, and Hutchison all have to toggle immediately multiple times throughout—and Duncan succeeds. Duncan doesn’t have a caricature but he’s also got the least amount of opportunity to round it out—and the longest time before there’s some character work in the narrative; like two hours into the three.

There’s also an adorable mouse. The mouse is very important. Everyone does great with the mouse, cast and crew. Most adorably with Jeter but also Duncan and Hanks. Not sure if Morse actually acted opposite the mouse but his bemused expressions in those scenes are fantastic.

The special effects are good—Darabont’s got a definite tone he’s going for with them, which cinematographer David Tattersall is able to maintain. Tattersall does great work, editor Richard Francis-Bruce does great work (the cuts are wondrous), also excellent—minimal—score from Thomas Newman. It’s a technical marvel without ever trying for marvelous.

Well, except maybe Harry Dean Stanton’s bit part as a trustee who helps the guards practice their executions. The film lets Stanton be marvelous.

The Green Mile is an appropriately wonderful, appropriately horrific, superlative piece of work from Darabont, Hanks, Rockwell, Jeter, and down the list. Just magnificent.

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