Tears You'll Hate
Performances in The Green Mile are so excellent you may forget you're being manipulated.
Thursday, December 9, 1999
It''s the velvet glove over the iron-fisted clobber. Frank Darabont''s direction in The Green Mile, based on Stephen King''s serial novel, is smoothness itself, with a superior cast--James Cromwell, Harry Dean Stanton and Gary Sinise--in supporting roles. The music by Thomas Newman is nervy and anxious, instead of the usual holiday-movie celestial syrup, and, all in all, the movie takes some concentration not to succumb to it. There''s reasons to hold back, and I''ll try to explain them.
Tom Hanks'' Paul Edgecomb is a prison guard watching over four men waiting for a seat in the electric chair, at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana during the 1930s. The newest convict is John Coffey (played by the 6-foot 5-inch actor Michael Clarke Duncan, who co-starred as Bear in Armageddon). Coffey has been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a pair of little girls. Edgecomb, who is suffering from some unspecified bladder disorder, is cured when Coffey lays one powerful hand on his crotch. Later, Coffey proves himself with even greater powers of healing when he revives Mr. Jingles, the pet mouse of Death Row, killed by a vicious prison guard named Percy Wetmore. (He''s played by Doug Hutchinson, doing the best John Malkovich impersonation ever seen.) It''s obvious that the saintly Coffey has unearthly power. Now, Edgecomb, like Melville''s Captain Vere in Billy Budd must hang (well, electrocute) an angel.
Hanks reminds one of the pre-war Jimmy Stewart, but he seems to have picked up some Henry Fonda to the mix. He''s beefier, tougher, and there''s more burr in his southern drawl than in Forrest Gump. Strangely, Hanks seems more manly before he gets his genitals healed; after that he''s reduced to his ordinary Boy-Scout niceness. Better still is David Morse, who plays Hank''s assistant Brutus nicknamed "Brutal"--probably because he''s a gentle, courtly hulk, never given to violence except when provoked to the extreme. Morse has the incredulous face of a baby suddenly grown to age 40.
Watching Duncan stirs deep longing, just like watching Ving Rhames, or James Earl Jones or Paul Robeson before them. These proud, massive actors are ambassadors from a parallel world in which racism has been defeated at last.
Yes, Coffey''s servility--a cold word, but accurate--is truer to life in the 1930s than an audience of 1999 would believe. But The Green Mile suggests that the infusion from Duncan''s manly hand into Hank''s hurt genitals is not just a healing power but a dose of African-American virility. And the thickness continues. Coffey is too saintly to put up a fight to save his life, despite his blinding innocence, the coincidence that puts the real culprit nearby, and even the favor of a warden. I can''t believe it was best to follow Coffey''s will in this life-or-death matter. It''s a matter of fact that not every convict is thinking clearly in jail, and that sometimes other people have to do the thinking for them. The Green Mile alternates horror and redemption for an audience is swollen with emotion for the holidays.
Here, in fine, is that real one-two punch of brutality and sentiment that gives a mainstream movie its power. And it takes concentration to recognize the essential cheapness of the story, especially at the sure-shot-tear-jerk moments, like when the treasured pet''s restored to life. If you just let the floodgates open and are swept away by tears, you may hate yourself for it in the morning.