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[whitespace] Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan
Photograph by John Ricard

Hanks for the Memories: Tom Hanks gets instructed by Michael Clarke Duncan in 'The Green Mile.'

Big Mouse House

Frank Darabont and Stephen King's prestige prison pic shocks with sentiment and nostalgia

By Richard von Busack

TEAR-JERKING ought to be an art of omission. The intention to liquefy the audience is plain in The Green Mile, director Frank Darabont's first film since The Shawshank Redemption, and his second prison picture based on a novel by Stephen King.

Condemned inmate John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) appears on the brink of tears throughout almost the entire three hours of the film. The sight of a huge, muscled man weeping seems like a corollary to that movie law laid down by one of the sarcastic characters in Dogma: "There's nothing worse than a fat man crying."

Yet in some respects, The Green Mile earns its tears, because its subject is one of our national shames: the mistreatment of prisoners. As a sweet fable grounded in savagery, the film offers an example of the velvet glove over the iron-fisted clobber.

Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, a prison guard watching over four men waiting for a seat in the electric chair. Edgecomb is stationed at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana during the 1930s. Death row there is nicknamed The Green Mile, because of its green linoleum.

The newest resident of the row is Coffey (played by the 6-foot-5-inch 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. Gradually, we learn that the convict has wonder-working powers. Edgecomb, who suffers badly 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 (Doug Hutchinson, doing the best John Malkovich impersonation ever seen). It's obvious that Coffey possesses unearthly power. Now, Edgecomb, like Captain Vere in Melville's Billy Budd, is a man who has to hang--well, electrocute--an angel.

HANKS IS USUALLY a naif, like the prewar Jimmy Stewart, but he seems to have channeled into Henry Fonda for a change. He's meatier and ballsier than usual, even if his head is dwarfed under one of the enormous peaked caps worn by prison guards and gas station attendants alike 60 years ago.

Strangely, Hanks seems more manly before he gets his genitals healed. Afterward, he's back to his usual Boy Scout niceness. Better still is David Morse, who plays Edgecomb's assistant Brutus, nicknamed "Brutal" (probably because he's a gentle, courtly hulk, never given to violence except when provoked to the extreme).

Morse is the best actor in the film, the most subtle in demonstrating all shades of incomprehension. (Morse has the incredulous look of a baby suddenly grown to age 40 in the blink of an instant.) On a grosser, funnier ground, Harry Dean Stanton shows up in an evil-humored scene as a trustee named Toot-Toot. The old coot is a stand-in for the execution rehearsals, and he shouts out sick jokes while sitting in the chair. ("Ah'm a done Tom turkey! This is a shockin' experience!")

Michael Jeter does a Walter Brennan-style turn as a Cajun who discovered Mr. Jingles. The Green Mile also displays a little touch of Gary Sinise's almost Levantine self-righteousness in the actor's cameo as Coffey's racist public defender.

Thomas Newman's soundtrack, especially the theme for the mouse in question, is eerie and smart, not the big John Williams "gloria, gloria, in excelsis Deo" mode that is customary for these spiritual pictures.

And the contrast of mouse to man is mirrored in the way Coffey is shot to look as if he were 7 feet tall. We never see him from tip to toe, to increase the sense of great size. His is a "face never deformed by a sneer or subtler vile freak of the heart within," as Melville describes Budd.

COFFEY IS NOT resentful, even on death row. Despite the limited, one-dimensional characterization, Duncan's performance is often rousing. Watching him is like seeing Paul Robeson, James Earl Jones, Ving Rhames or Morgan Freeman. These proud, massive, kingly actors are ambassadors from a parallel world in which racism, America's No. 1 problem, has been defeated at last.

Coffey's servility--a cold word, but accurate--is truer to life than an audience of 1999 would like to believe. The South in the Depression was extremely isolated, without much hope of equality. But in the infusion from Coffey's manly hand into Edgeconb's hurt genitals we see not just the healing power of a supernatural being but a pop image of African American virility being conveyed to a white guy. And the thickness continues. Edgecomb gives the convict thanks the next morning: because of the prisoner's healing powers, the prison guard was able to make love to his wife four times in one night.

Though immaculately made, The Green Mile is rigged. We have the saintliness of Coffey, who won't put up a fight to save his life despite his blinding innocence. We also have the shameless coincidence that puts the real killer nearby. With the warden and the guards behind Coffey, wouldn't there be an attempt to reopen his case?

Suggesting that Coffey is too beautiful to live in this world is corny, as corny as telling us that his own free will is what matters--free will in a man with as little education as Coffey? 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 King/Darabont jailhouse films are uplifters. Consider the elevated reputation of The Shawshank Redemption, a good if not great film. But Darabont has roots as a horror scriptwriter (A Nightmare on Elm Street III and the remake of The Blob), so he gives The Green Mile the touches that would please King's core audience. The film includes a long, botched execution full of aestheticized horror, with flames shooting out of the victim's mouth. It's what you could euphemistically call the hand of the master.

King published The Green Mile as the first serialized novel since the 1920s--a gesture that was meant to recall the serial work of Charles Dickens. No doubt, King is the Dickens this century deserved, and certainly Dickens was just as interested in the profound effect of violence on a reader when he created, say, the incineration of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

Here's the difference: King's stories of prison, unlike most of Dickens' tales, are set in the author's past, not his present. They don't challenge the packed-to-the-rafters prisons of 1999; they're set in a nostalgic '50s in The Shawshank Redemption and in the South of the 1930s in The Green Mile. They're not complicated with the issue of guilt or innocence, because we know that our heroes aren't menaces to society.

The Green Mile is being released at exactly the right time of year, though, for an audience already swollen with emotion by the holidays. Thus, most won't look at it critically. Because here, in fine, is that real one-two punch of brutality and sentiment that gives our mainstream movies their power.

And it takes restraint to recognize the essential cheapness of the story--especially when crying over that sure-shot tear jerk of a beloved pet restored to life. Some viewers may not be such sentimental fools. Others might prefer to surrender to the kind of tears you'll hate yourself for in the morning.

The Green Mile (R; 182 min.), directed and written by Frank Darabont, based on the novel by Stephen King, photographed by David Tattersall and starring Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan and Michael Jeter, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the December 9-15, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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