The Green Mile

Paul Edgecomb and John Coffey look at something offscreen in The Green Mile

“I just can’t see God putting a gift like that in the hands of a man who would kill a child.”

When someone mentions a movie with miracles, that usually brings to mind some very specific images: a struggling family, an overly sentimental problem, and a religious leader, for instance. The Green Mile gives us a story showing that miracles can occur anywhere—even in a prison block reserved for inmates on death row, even in the midst of senseless brutality, even among people who can’t bring themselves to believe in a god at all. This film is adapted from a Stephen King novel and directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Majestic), and it stars Tom Hanks, David Morse, and Michael Clarke Duncan. This is an outstanding drama that will stick with you long after the credits roll, but be prepared: it’s quite sad at times and downright disturbing in a few spots. In the end, though, it’s totally worth it.

The plot follows Paul Edgecomb, a guard at a penitentiary in the 1930s, as he and other guards on the block work to keep order among inmates who have been sentenced to die. One of the guards, Percy Wetmore, is sadistic and remains there only through the influence of some relatives in politics. The block receives a new inmate: John Coffey, an enormous black man with a simple mind and a timid disposition, who has been convicted of raping and murdering two little girls. Paul notices that John lacks the criminal disposition of other inmates on the block and soon begins questioning why he’s there. After John and Paul get to know each other, John reveals that he has a miraculous power to heal injuries and other maladies. Tensions grow as Percy’s outbursts grow more serious and the other guards also begin to question whether or not John really belongs there.

On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and he asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I gonna say? That it was my job? My job?

This film gets a lot of things right, but the thing that stood out the most to me was the attention to detail. Aside from Tom Hanks, Darabont used some relatively unknown actors for most of the roles, which freed him up to find perfect matches for these characters rather than adapt the characters to the actors. The characters of Paul Edgecomb, Percy Wetmore, Brutus Howell, and of course John Coffey were all perfectly cast, and these characters came to life in a way few other films have emulated. With such a colorful and interesting cast of characters, the film could have easily succeeded with a simple plot, but the plot is complex and alive as well, with many threads that come together or drift apart throughout the film. Between the colorful characters and the complex plot, this really feels like a slice of life rather than a simple story, and those details really make this film feel real.

And that attention to detail pleased what could have been the film’s biggest critic: Stephen King himself. King has said that this film is the best adaptation of any of the 30+ films based on his stories, and he paid several visits to the set during filming. They even strapped him into the prop electric chair so he could see what that felt like. (He didn’t like it and asked to be released almost immediately.) Remember that Stephen King hated many other adaptations of his stories, including The Shining, and became vocal critics of them—his approval is not easy to win, and that stamp of approval pleased the cast and crew and fans of the excellent serialized book.

Percy Wetmore looks like a jerk in The Green Mile
Percy was a character everyone loved to hate, and it was a dedicated performance from Doug Hutchison that made his unlikability so universal.

This is a heavy film to watch, although powerful and even inspiring at times. There are three electric chair executions portrayed, and none of them are easy to watch. One in particular is horrifying. There are also a number of heartbreaking moments throughout. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are some great little moments between the guards and the inmates that show how they work to support each other in what could be the hardest time of the inmates’ lives, and there’s a very talented mouse that adds some much-needed levity in moments.

The Green Mile is an excellent drama that touches on the supernatural without making things campy or overly sentimental. It’s sad, moving, and fascinating in the story it tells and the characters it portrays. It’s definitely not for kids and the drama may go over the heads of some teenagers, but any adult who can appreciate a moving drama that doesn’t shy away from darker elements should watch this film.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 3:09
Director: Frank Darabont
Year: 1999
Genres: crime, drama
Rating: R

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