The Green Mile (1999)

2008 #78
Frank Darabont | 181 mins | DVD | 18 / R

This review contains major spoilers.

The Worst Movie Poster of All TimeFive years after making The Shawshank Redemption — somewhat ignored at the time, but now incredibly popular and constantly bidding for acknowledgement as The Best Film Ever — writer-director Frank Darabont returned to the Stephen King Non-Horror Well (quite a shallow one, I should think) to film this tale of a man on death row in the ’30s. Darabont writing & directing a three-hour adaptation of a Stephen King story set in a prison in early 20th Century America? But Shawshank 2 this is not; in fact, I would argue that, due to one key difference amid those similarities, it’s actually the anti-Shawshank.

The key difference, I should rush to point out, is not the presence of the supernatural. While obviously a major element of the film, the level of realism dedicated to it, plus the overall tone of the piece, means that it still doesn’t feel too far removed from its predecessor. Nonetheless, where Shawshank was very much a real-world story, The Green Mile gradually draws the viewer into believing that miracles may be possible. It’s a whole hour before Michael Clarke Duncan’s near-silent John Coffey (“like the drink, only not spelled the same”) does his healing thing, at which point what was apparently a straightforward period prison drama gains a new dimension.

The fact that this occurs so late, after a lot of effort has been spent establishing the normal real-world setting, means it is firmly grounded in reality. Where most supernatural-focused films ask the viewer to accept, “in this world, this is real”, The Green Mile forces us to ask, “in the real world, what is this power? where does it come from?” Perhaps this seems a subtle distinction, but it isn’t; and the film pulls it off with impressive ease thanks to Darabont’s writing and direction, plus the well-judged performances of Duncan, Tom Hanks as lead warden Paul Edgecomb, and the rest of the cast.

Up to this point, the film feels like a collection of subplots. It takes a slow and careful, but never dull, approach to storytelling, slowly unfurling details of the characters, their relationships, and the technicalities of prison life; but it’s not until Coffey’s power emerges that these really begin to come together. Within this process, Darabont’s writing cleverly structures the release of information to the viewer. We never learn any details of some of the inmates’ crimes, for example, allowing us to sympathise with them; indeed, a lot of subtle effort is put into making Michael Jeter’s Del likeable, serving the double purpose of making his death infinitely more shocking (that we don’t know his crimes largely removes the danger of a “well he deserved it” reaction from certain viewers) and, by his association with Coffey, helping the viewer to like the apparent child murderer. All sorts of details slip by almost as scene setting, only to have horrendous significance later on, and both the reveals and later revelations are played out perfectly.

The film’s ending successfully brings together a wide variety of these seeded elements, neatly melding the remaining subplots without pushing into the realm of unsatisfactory coincidence. But the conclusion is also unapologetically downbeat, and it’s this which affirms that anti-Shawshank status: where Shawshank ends with escape and hope, The Green Mile ends with injustice and imprisonment — the execution of an innocent, miraculous man, and Paul’s ‘imprisonment’ in an unknowably long (potentially, endless) life, suffering the constant loss of those he loves and the guilt of what he did.

If The Green Mile is not quite Shawshank then that’s because it’s not trying to be. It’s a superb film in its own right, but the lack of an uplifting ending is the reason it isn’t — and never will be — as popular as its apparent twin.

5 out of 5

(Originally posted on 28th January 2009.)

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