Published December 1, 1999
What is it about Frank Darabont and prisons? Or, for that matter, Stephen King and prisons? Having already idealized prison life in his dreadful version of Mr. King’s dreadful Shawshank Redemption a few years ago, Mr Darabont is at it again in the even more dreadful King story, The Green Mile. In Shawshank, although most of the prisoners were improbably gentle and good and kind, at least some of them—and more of the guards—were portrayed, not entirely improbably, as brutes and thugs. In The Green Mile, both prisoners (death row inmates, no less!) and guards, to say nothing of the warden, are all saintly figures, barring a couple of bad apples in the barrel, one guard and one prisoner—played with carpet-chewing enthusiasm on both parts by Doug Hutchison and Sam Rockwell. Even a fantasy from the Royal fantasy-factory has got to be anchored to some reality, doesn’t it?
Nor am I using the word “saintly” entirely hyperbolically. At the center of the action is the gentle giant, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a simple-minded black man who possesses a miraculous gift of healing. What, you might ask, is this Christ-figure (note the initials!) doing on death row? Well, he was found, in rural Louisiana of the 1930s where the story takes place, with two little white girls who had been raped and murdered, one under each ham-like arm, howling at the sky like an animal. “I couldn’t help it boss,” he says. “I tried to take it back, but it was too late.” Of course we, the audience, know at once—just because it is rural Louisiana in the 1930s—that he didn’t do it. But only gradually do we learn that by “take it back” he means “bring them back to life”—a not-unreasonable expectation for him, given that we see him do precisely this to the corpse of a much-beloved mouse for whom it is, more shockingly, not too late.
So far, the movie might not seem completely beyond redemption. In fact, miracles show up better on the silver screen than anywhere else in art in spite of (or perhaps because of) the realistic bias of the medium. But the giveaway of the film’s fatal sentimentalism is that damned mouse. Cute in itself, it is captured and trained to do cute tricks with a wooden spool by an almost equally cute inmate, Eduard, “Dell,” Delacroix (Michael Jeter)—before he is hauled off and electrocuted for some grisly murder. The bad guard, Percy (Mr Hutchison), has it in not only for Dell but also for his adorable little mouse, whom in his adorable Cajun accent he calls “Mr Jingles.” Percy stomps the latter and rigs the execution of the former so that he will burn to death instead of being killed by the jolt of electricity.
John Coffey is able to resurrect the one but not the other. Instead, during Dell’s horrific execution in another part of the prison, he quivers in instant sympathy with every volt of electricity. In addition, he cures the head of E block and chief guard on death row, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) of a urinary tract infection whose symptoms more closely resemble those of VD or, perhaps a kidney stone, and, even more remarkably, Melinda (Patricia Clarkson), the beloved wife of the beloved warden (James Cromwell). Melinda has an inoperable brain tumor whose symptoms include amnesia, a black eye, and cursing like a sailor. The warden is desperately sorry about it, as are all his devoted guards (except Percy, of course), and he is finally prevailed upon to allow gentle John to try to do for her what he did for the mouse.
John’s curative technique consists of sucking all the bad juju out of the sick (or dead) person (or mouse) and into his own massive frame as the movies’ patented science-fiction glow illuminates the transaction, plus occasional poltergeist effects. Thereupon he expels the bad stuff orally into the atmosphere in the form of a swarm of (apparently) non-biting gnats. The effort is greater than it appears, however, as immediately afterwards he takes to his bed. In the case of the tumor he makes an exception to his usual rule and retains the gnats long enough to breathe them into Percy. Percy instantly goes nuts, murders Wild Bill (Mr. Rockwell)—who is, of course, the real murderer of the two little girls—and is carted off to an insane asylum. Serve him right, too, for stomping Mr Jingles! “I punished dem bad men,” says John Coffey with satisfaction. “I punished ’em both.”
Alas, his own (undeserved) punishment is not long in coming—after he is granted his last request, which is to see a movie. “I ain’t never seen me a flicker show,” he says with a charm worthy of Billy Bob Thornton. So his devoted guards arrange for a private screening of Top Hat, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with which he is enchanted. Shortly afterwards, as the weeping guards strap him into the chair, we hear him singing “Cheek to Cheek” softly to himself: “Heb’n, I’m in heb’n. . .” And who can doubt it? John Coffey doesn’t mind dying. “I want it all to be over,” he tells a dewy-eyed Tom Hanks. “I’m tired, boss…..Most of all I’m tired of people being ugly to each other….all the pain in the world….Can you understand?” Tom does. And so, in spite of his bad conscience and his private knowledge of what really happened to the two little girls, proceeds to fry him.
It seems a little unfair that both he and Mr Jingles are punished for this obliging act by not being permitted to die themselves. On the other hand, I could not avoid feeling that their eternal life on this earth in a state of increasing decrepitude was condign punishment for inflicting upon us over three hours—which seems only slightly less long than eternity—of this tedious, silly and grotesquely sentimental twaddle.