Stephen King is a strange concept. Not only did he initially write basically every horror film ever, but you also tend to forget that it was his brain that conceived both The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Frank Darabont directed both of these stunning films, and the adaptation of the latter turns 20 years old on December 10th.
Tom Hanks plays the central character, a sympathetic death row corrections officer named Paul Edgecomb, while the late (and Academy Award and Golden Globe-nominated) Michael Clarke Duncan gives a stunning performance as the gentle giant John Coffey. On the surface, most remember The Green Mile as a heart-wrenching tale of a kind, innocent inmate being forced through an unjust execution. Somehow, the fact that John Coffey is actually a healer with a magic mouse in his pocket is often overlooked.
Typically, a film that suddenly introduces supernatural elements is pretty hard to market or take seriously. The way Darabont handles what is if you think about it, a pretty strange piece of characterisation from King, is impressive. Turning the healing inmate and magic mouse into a secondary element that exists below the personality and interactions between the cast is a seriously impressive feat. The viewer turns their attention instead to hating the (unmagical) characters of Percy and Wharton and sympathising with the story of Coffey. His acts of resurrection and healing are simply unique background noise to a far more moving story.
That’s why the ending remains one of the most emotional in cinema history. We sort of knew it was coming, but the discovery that Coffey is truly innocent is even more brutal when we find out that it was Wharton the whole time. A character we had grown to dislike more and more, turned out to be the cause of all the sadness in a character we love. It doesn’t get much worse than that.
Oh but it actually does, as no retribution comes and we have to watch as Hanks’ Edgecomb is forced to have a direct hand in his friend’s unjust death. When Coffey asks not to have his hood pulled down because he’s afraid of the dark, things all just get a bit much. I don’t really think it’s a line possible to become desensitised to. There’s a modicum of justice when Wharton is killed and Percy ends up catatonic, but it’s not really enough, is it? As we flash forward to the older version of Paul telling his story, it’s hard to find anything even close to a happy ending. Now 60 years old, the very existence of Mr. Jingles suggests that he has no idea when his own life might end, no matter how much we wants it to.
I suppose one of the most impressive elements of The Green Mile goes all the way back to its writing and how King manages to subvert his own style. The supernatural element exists for good, rather than bad, and the monsters are nothing more than twisted humans. In a way, it’s one of his most terrifying works.
Revisiting this film is certainly worth 188 minutes of your day.