1999 was a big year for movies. It was the year that The Matrix’s slow-motion bullet influenced action movies for years to come. It was the year American Beauty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Oscar fans have been arguing about it ever since. It was the year Pokémon jumped from Gameboys and TV to the big screen. And worst of all, it was the year that disappointed a generation of Star Wars fans with the release of The Phantom Menace.
To celebrate that landmark year in film’s 20th Anniversary, The Pop Break continues its year-long retrospective of 1999’s most influential (at least to us) films with writer, Michael Vacchiano, looking back at director Frank Darabont’s other Stephen King adaptation about men in prison, The Green Mile.
How does a filmmaker possibly create a follow-up to a movie so universally beloved that it eventually reaches the level of modern classic? After helming 1994’s Shawshank Redemption, writer-director Frank Darabont went back to the well by adapting yet another prison-set novel by Stephen King: The Green Mile. Headlined by megastar Tom Hanks and with a runtime of over three hours, Darabont definitely swung for the fences. While probably not as well-remembered and less seen than The Shawshank Redemption, yours truly will still proudly hold it in the same regard as an equally incredible piece of cinema.
Told in flashback, Green Mile takes place in the Deep South circa 1935, right in the thick of the Great Depression. Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, the head prison guard of Cold Mountain Penitentiary’s death row cell block. Besides tending to the inmates, Paul and his crew are also in charge of overseeing the executions. The film’s title refers to the faded, lime-colored floor of the long hallway the prisoners walk when their time comes to face the electric chair.
Paul’s life is changed forever with the arrival of his newest prisoner, gentle giant, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan). Despite his enormous stature and imposing physique, Coffey is extremely soft-spoken with the mindset and demeanor of a young child. Charged and sentenced for the rape and murder of two white girls, John is now the latest inmate scheduled to “ride the lightning.” However, Paul soon begins to suspect the man’s innocence when he experiences Coffey displaying supernatural powers of healing and clairvoyance.
One may cynically think that The Green Mile is yet another “white savior” story if they haven’t seen it…with some spiritual phenomena sprinkled in. They may even think of it as a retread of Darabont’s previous breakthrough film, but the difference is clear by movie’s end. Shawshank’s central theme of internal struggle and maintaining one’s spirit despite adversity was supplemented with an enduring friendship between its two leads. But the relationship between Paul and John is more of a student/teacher in a strange way, a learning experience about life and how things aren’t always what they appear. Coffey’s time on The Mile opens the eyes of Paul and his men to things they never thought were possible.
Hanks is excellent as always — even if Green Mile isn’t among his most noteworthy performances. In an enviable film catalogue that spans almost five decades, it says something that he still goes all out to show us the fatigued and jaded Paul forever changing. However, the movie ultimately belongs to Duncan, who is both heartbreaking and a revelation as John Coffey (“like the drink, only not spelled the same”). He is truly the heart of the film, and Duncan deservedly earned an Academy Award nomination for his most well-known role. The actor sadly passed away in 2012.
Besides the two main leads, the ensemble cast is rounded out by a fantastic who’s-who of character actors, including other late greats like Harry Dean Stanton and Michael Jeter. The Green Mile also gives us future Oscar winner, Sam Rockwell, in an early breakout performance as a deranged and trouble-making inmate. There’s also great work here from: David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn, Graham Greene, Doug Hutchison…and even an adorable mouse named Mr. Jingles who nearly steals the show.
Green Mile also holds some fond memories for me, as I still remember reading Stephen King’s novel back in high school. During my senior year, my English class was given the option to read said book during our last semester. We all loved it, as well as the cinematic viewing experience that followed in class. Just like any first time seeing a movie that eventually becomes a personal favorite, I knew I was watching a truly special film.
Darabont stuck to his wheelhouse later in his career, directing yet another Stephen King adaptation with 2007’s underrated The Mist. It wasn’t successful upon release, but it has since gone on to be recognized as a great entry into the sci-fi/horror genre. Going along the same lines, Darabont is also responsible for bringing television’s smash hit, The Walking Dead to the small screen.
Nevertheless, The Shawshank Redemption always seems to overshadow The Green Mile despite their differences. The former is about hope and humanity, and the latter is about miracles and mortality. And while Shawshank will forever be hailed as Darabont’s crowning achievement (and rightfully so), Green Mile will always have a spot on my favorite movies list. Even after twenty years, I’ll gladly be “walkin’ the Mile” for decades to come.