Right To Remain Silent

Don't Ask Questions, Just Go Ahead And Walk 'The Green Mile.'

DON'T READ THIS. As a self-respecting critic, I'm warning you that reading this review may irreversibly limit your ability to enjoy the movie being hailed by lesser critics as one of this year's best. If you're going to see The Green Mile when it opens this weekend, sequester yourself like a jury member. Put down your paper (or at least turn back to The Skinny); remain impartial and uninformed so that you can with a clear conscience arrive at your own verdict. If you've already seen the movie, or are certain never to see it, by all means read on.

This concludes our disclaimer.

I trust several of you are unadvisedly skipping ahead, since The Weekly has built its readership around a core demographic with little truck for being told what to do. So be it. Critics have long been recognized for filling several column inches without saying much, but seldom, as now, for the greater good. In short, I'll try not to ruin it for you.

The Green Mile was published as a serial novel in 1996 by prolific hackmeister Stephen King, who's published so many novels that the law of averages would indicate at least a few would turn out to be good ones. Exquisitely adapted and directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), this extraordinary series of events on death row in Alabama -- the eponymous "green mile" -- indeed turns out to be one of King's finer moments as a storyteller.

The challenge The Green Mile poses, from both a filmmaking and critical standpoint, is that it covers such familiar territory: the allegorical tale of good and evil, in which our assumptions of justice, wisdom, cruelty and compassion are juxtaposed to reveal the truth behind the truth.

Say what you will about King -- and in my case, several uncharitable observations leap to mind -- he knows a thing or two about human nature. His instinct for relevant detail combines with cinematographer David Tatersall's equally carefully chosen images to achieve that increasingly rare film that's equal parts written and visual narrative. They enable us to see things up close from far away, to have a perspective the protagonists cannot. That alone makes this not terribly original story an extraordinary film. (Incidentally in this small world, Tatersall turns out to be the uncle of a waiter at downtown's Cup Café.)

Forty-year-old writer/director Darabont will deservedly receive much of the credit for The Green Mile. But his greatest achievement may well be that he either lucked into or brilliantly envisioned an incredibly creative team of non-celebrities, with résumés that crisscross like a road map. (Long-absent but familiar faces in this diverse cast include Bonnie Hunt, Gary Sinise and Harry Dean Stanton.)

There is no one element of The Green Mile that shines to the exclusion of all others. Rather, the relationship between elements gives it that star-quality instantly recognizable but hard to pinpoint. Certainly it's in the chemistry that allows these actors -- who with the exception of Tom Hanks are recognizable but mostly unknown -- to seem utterly genuine in their roles. Michael Clarke Duncan's performance as a condemned man is certainly Oscar bound; but there are times when the actors themselves seem to be hearing his lines for the first time. It's amazing and moving to watch.

Visually, there's a balance between subtle and sensational tricks, from making the king-sized Duncan appear supernaturally large to the special effects spectacle of witnessing an electrocution. The unerring detail of set designs by Terence Marsh (The Shawshank Redemption, The Hunt for Red October), bathed in the saturated colors and artful compositions of Tatersall's camera, similarly have a life of their own. Multiple moods are conveyed visually without being redundant to the script: we get unspoken exposition from the contorted face of a rifle-toting farmer in a sun-drenched cotton field; the contradictory elements of comfort and confinement in the orange glow of electric light above a sterile gray prison corridor; and the mundane cruelty of a man on his knees with a toothbrush, polishing an electric chair.

Everyone Darabont has assembled seems to be a genius at what they do, from the writers and actors down to the sound engineers and foley artists who wrench maximum effect from an abstract collage of distorted noise, the squeak of a mouse and the echo of boots on a cement floor. All invisibly come together to produce a wholly successful, if not wholly original, film.

The plot examines the relationship that develops between head prison guard Paul Edgecomb (Hanks) and the newly admitted prisoner John Coffey (Duncan), convicted of an exceptionally heinous crime. Written for a contemporary audience but dressed primarily in the unwashed cotton, lonely farmhouses and antiquated prison block of the Depression-era South, Darabont's film plays with the audience on a variety of levels.

It's narrated as the story of an old man in 1999 (Dabs Greer as the aged Paul Edgecomb) confessing the story of his life a lifetime ago. But within the drama he exhumes from the summer of 1935, there's a subtext about racism and the ambiguity of American justice. With one exception, the prisoners in Edgecomb's Block E are presented as remorseful outcasts rather than dangerous criminals. Graham Greene is the first to fry as Native American Arlen Bitterbuck; Michael Jeter plays the mentally unbalanced French Cajun Eduard Delacroix; and Duncan is a simple-minded black Southerner, a mutant for his enormous size alone.

There are clear heroes and villains, and clocking in at just under three hours, there are some detailed subplots to wade through. But the most interesting character studies happen in jail.

By sticking steadfastly to the intimate details of this fictionalized prison life, The Green Mile slowly and artfully addresses both our basest fears and greatest hopes for human potential. Contained within that struggle to understand human nature is a dialogue about violence, couched in the juxtaposition of crimes committed against the state (murder, theft, etc.) with those committed by the state (wrongful imprisonment, the death penalty).

If ever there was a movie to sway your opinion about the death penalty, this is it. It inspires more empathy than Dead Man Walking, and poses an even greater affront to justice than The Shawshank Redemption.

The idea of the violent anti-violence film is hardly new territory. Movies like Unforgiven, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan (to name but a few) have attempted to sicken us with violence in order to soften our hearts and open our minds. But that tactic has been so often deployed, it's lost its effect. In 1999, we are surrounded by violence; we are inured to violence, particularly on film. We watch impassively as people are shot in cold blood, blown limb from limb to die agonizing deaths, and the first thing that comes to mind is not the crime being committed against humanity, but the special effects budget.

The Green Mile has some excruciating scenes, and parents are well-advised to heed that R rating. Adults looking for stark realism will not be disappointed. But those looking for magical realism will find it here as well, in a story so compassionately articulated that the death of a mouse holds equal sway with the death of a man, and that alone is an incredible feat. It gives back something that today's impressively hyper-real dramas have largely taken away: it requires imagination.

The Green Mile opens Friday, December 10, at Century El Con (202-3343), Century Gateway (792-9000), Century Park (620-0750) and Foothills Odeon (742-6174) theaters.
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