The Green Mile, by Albert W. Vogt III

Not to harp on this, but there are some suggestions for films I have never seen where after experiencing it I regret, well, everything. Example? Weekend at Bernie’s (1989). The flip-side is coming away from an over-looked classic and feeling like you are a better person. Example? The Green Mile (1999). Part of the reason why I did not see The Green Mile when it came out was due, at the time, to loyalty to American Beauty (1999). The latter was the first movie to ever make me cry, and thus I grew an emotional attachment to it. The Green Mile and American Beauty went up against each other for best picture at the Academy Awards in 2000. When my then favorite won, I wrote off the other. My mistake.

I feel like there are aspects of The Green Mile that everyone knows, like Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecomb, the head death row guard at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana, or the hulking form of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan). Those were the images I had rattling around in my brain going into it, anyway. Hence I was somewhat confused when the film is largely set up in a nursing home, with an elderly version of Paul (Dabbs Greer). An old film catches his eye one day, and it reminds him of the time back in 1935 when he worked on death row. Much of the rest from there is told as a flashback, all of which is triggered by the arrival of John on death row. Paul and his fellow guards carry out their awful duty with grim but serious professionalism. Given their experience, they were not used to the almost gentleness to a fault of John, complicated all the more by the fact that he is an African American and huge. Their initial reaction to John is typical of the South at the height of the Jim Crow era. But John’s apparent temperament, and Paul’s review of the case file, lead the guard to believe that something is amiss. Paul is also dealing with a urinary tract infection, and the next clue to just how special is John comes when the prisoner grabs a hold of the guard and performs a physical healing on Paul’s painful condition. What leads the other guards to believe is when John brings a dead mouse back to life. They are thus convinced that not only is John innocent of the crime for which he is about to be executed, but that he is a genuine miracle worker. And when Warden Hal Moores’ (James Cromwell) wife Melinda (Patricia Clarkson) is on her deathbed with brain cancer, Paul leads the guards in smuggling John out of the prison to save her. Despite all the good in John and all he can do for others, this is still Louisiana in 1935 and John is a death row inmate. In other words, there was virtually nothing that could be done to convince the family of the two little white girls found in John’s arms that he was innocent. Paul knew it not just from what he had seen of John’s character, but because John had given Paul a vision of what had happened to the two girls. Regardless, the law is the law, and thus Paul had to lead John to his death in the electric chair. After this, Paul felt he could no longer fulfill his current position and moved on to working in other correctional roles. He lived to a ripe old age, though, a result of his contact with John.

I had to truncate my synopsis of The Green Mile somewhat because it is a three hour movie. That can be bad sometimes, but either way it means there are extra plot threads that I omitted. While in some films of this length such things can drag the pace down to that of a snail, in this it all serves to flesh out the main characters. This is by no means a quick tempo film, but neither does it waste time. One side-plot worth mentioning to illustrate how they help make Paul into a character with which we can identify is his interactions with junior death row guard Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison). Percy is everything Paul is not: where Paul levels with the inmates, Percy openly derides them; where Paul views whose duty of executing people as essentially a necessary evil, Percy is there because he has a sick fascination with watching people die. Percy is also the state governor’s son, so he acts as if he is above not only the prisoners, but his fellow guards. The only way Percy agrees to leave is by making a bargain with Paul whereby Percy agrees to transfer elsewhere if allowed to be out front and assuming Paul’s role during the next execution. This position swap happens to coincide with a prisoner that Percy had an antagonist relationship with, and whose mouse John had brought back to life after Percy had stomped on it. Percy then proceeds to not wet the sponge placed on top of Eduard “Dell” Delacroix’s (Michael Jeter) head, and the result is a horrifyingly grotesque death that frightens the wits out of those gathered to witness the event. While Paul handles the situation with his typical professionalism, the feeling is that maybe Percy deserves some more immediate retribution. Paul’s form of comeuppance involves forcing Percy into a straight-jacket, taping his mouth shut, and sticking the junior guard in the padded room while they sneak John out to the warden’s house. John effects a more divine form later.

The Green Mile is a rich movie to analyze from a faith perspective, so much so that I hardly know where to begin. Paul’s actions are almost always Christ-like, particularly in his concern for the welfare of those on death row. In most Christian sects, prison ministry is a thing. It is Biblical, after all. There are various references to the faith of other characters, such as when Melinda gives John her St. Christopher medallion after he takes the cancer out of her head. But I would be remiss if I did not focus on John. If you go through the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and look at the people God chooses to be His instruments, you might be surprised. I use that word “instrument” purposely, by the way, as Paul spent the rest of his life regretting that he had to put to death one of God’s instruments. And yet that is what happens repeatedly in the the Bible. Look at the person of Jesus. The Israelites seemed to think that the Messiah would be a mighty warrior king to lead them in throwing off their oppressors’ shackles. What they got was a poor carpenter from Nazareth. People expect, and this was just as true of 1935 as it is today, that a miracle worker will be some person of the cloth, not a giant, illiterate black man. And yet if you go to Mass at a Catholic Church you can be a part of a miracle every day. John, like Jesus, is also not some other-worldly being who lacks understanding of human emotion. He felt the pain of not only the people he helped, but of the entire world. It is a difficult thing to block out at times, which is why Faith is so important. John did not know much, as he admits, but he knew enough to hope in the reward of Heaven.

As you may have guessed from reading this review, The Green Mile is not exactly a family movie. There is some violence in it, and it is hard to watch at times, particularly when Dell dies. Interestingly, this is a Stephen King story. Given its Biblical overtones, and other stories like The Stand (which is getting a new series, by the way), it makes me wonder why more of his work cannot have such a clear distinction between good and evil. Then again, I could be missing something.

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