When the fiction foundry/movie mine/paradigm spigot that is Stephen King tries for an all-American magical-realism—his fave location for which is early-century prisons, his fave tone a rueful mushiness—what spills out is more like a cheddar-esque Saturday Evening Post yarn pasteurized, as it were, by a corporatized sense of self-importance. The Green Mile, written and directed by Frank Darabont like a testament to the humanity of its author, is in every aspect an attempt at restriking the Oscar-greased lightning of The Shawshank Redemption, plus some. The iron gravitas of Morgan Freeman is exchanged for sub-Cocoon digital doodads, but there’s no lack of glowing saints and glowering sinners.
You’d think that with the movie flagging in at three methodical hours Darabont was under the impression he was adapting Pasternak, but Lean-like length is hardly the least honor Hollywood can bestow upon its primary vendors and brokers. Darabont’s movie of course messes very little with King’s scenario, in which a Depression-era Louisiana death row as cozy as Will Rogers’s lap confronts one John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a seven-foot black refrigerator of a man with a kitten’s gentleness, the tendency to weep at others’ suffering, and the empathic ability to heal by touch. Cell-block chief Tom Hanks gets his bladder infection fixed up, warden James Cromwell’s wife (Patricia Clarkson) is cured of a brain tumor (but not before it turns her into The Exorcist‘s Regan O’Neill), and an intelligent mouse (a backwoods relation of Stuart Little?) is reconstituted after being crunched. The various inmates and guards on the Mile struggle to understand how such an angelic figure could’ve murdered two little girls.
Like his master, Darabont takes his folksy time, and it’s refreshing for a while, but King has a third-grade gym wimp’s ideas of plotting—one-dimensional cruelty and evil are answered by cosmic comeuppance—and The Green Mile is irritatingly repetitious and piled high with long-foreseen conclusions. (Distributor Warner Bros. warns us not to divulge the ending; which of the four or so endings they want kept secret is unclear.) Of the actors, only Duncan distinguishes himself, despite having to vomit fly swarms and to spit rays of Spielbergian light; Coffey’s stunning first lines about being afraid of the dark are delivered in an embarrassed sob that stays in your ears deep into the movie. Hanks is himself, naturally, less an actor that anyone really finds interesting than yet another brand name from whose movies the public have learned to expect a substantial degree of professional Hollywood homogeneity. Seen this way, Darabont has hit one out of the park.