Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Stephen King Month: The Green Mile (1999)

As far as prestige Stephen King projects go, The Green Mile is by far the most excessive. You could think of it as the height of the form -- although The Shawshank Redemption garnered more Oscar nominations (seven, to Mile's four) and has become an enduring classic (it's ranked at the top of IMDb's user rankings at the moment), Mile was a bigger deal right out of the gate. It's still by far the highest-grossing King movie ever made, and it came long enough after Shawshank's reputation had started to grow that it was anointed a success thanks to its pedigree (King, writer-director Frank Darabont, a period piece set in a prison) before even being released. People still love Mile, but to me it feels calcified by all of those expectations and preconditions, ladling on inspiration and meaning so thickly that it becomes suffocating. (I had to break up my recent viewing of the movie over two days just to get through the bloated, three-hour-plus running time.)

Darabont is a solid craftsman who put together an impressive cast, though, so Mile is never exactly unpleasant, just mildly irritating and frequently condescending. Thank goodness for Tom Hanks, who holds everything together as Paul Edgecomb, the head guard on death row in a Louisiana prison in 1935. Paul is compassionate without being syrupy, and that helps since so much of the story is incredibly sentimental. Hanks' measured performance is offset by Michael Clarke Duncan, who got a totally undeserved Oscar nomination for his hammy portrayal of John Coffey, the mentally challenged African-American inmate who touches the lives of all the other characters. Coffey is possibly the most egregious example of the "magical Negro" storytelling trope, and Duncan gives him this exaggerated childlike manner that's just incredibly grating. King tends to rely on these kinds of characters (both magical Negroes and saintly mentally handicapped people) far too often, and Darabont plays up all the most annoying aspects of the character without giving him any depth.

There are a lot of other strong actors elsewhere, though, even in small roles -- David Morse, Barry Pepper and Jeffrey DeMunn as the fellow guards, James Cromwell as the tortured prison warden, Patricia Clarkson as the warden's wife. The other inmates are nearly as cartoonish as John Coffey, though: Michael Jeter does an exaggerated Cajun accent as Eduard "Del" Delacroix, Graham Greene is the stereotypical stoic Native American as Arlen Bitterbuck, and Sam Rockwell goes nuts as the only prisoner on death row who isn't a completely great guy, making up for the meekness of his fellow inmates with over-the-top nasty behavior. I don't necessarily expect realism from King movies, but since Mile presents itself as a serious period piece (albeit with supernatural elements) rather than a fantastical horror movie, the laziness of the characterization is especially frustrating.

It's even more frustrating because it panders to the demands of a Shawshank-loving audience looking for easy uplift, which Mile delivers excessively over the course of its overlong narrative (King's novel was originally published in six monthly installments, which accounts for the protracted, episodic nature of the story). Darabont spends nearly 20 minutes just on the mawkish framing story featuring an elderly Paul in a nursing home, and slathers every significant moment with swelling orchestral music and sweeping camera movements. I wouldn't say that I hate The Green Mile, because it has noble intentions and a level of skill behind it, but it's probably the King movie I find the most laborious to watch.

How far to Castle Rock: Sadly no glimpses of what was going on there during the Depression; the movie sticks to Louisiana.


Pj Perez said...

What, no "how far to Castle Rock?" FOR SHAME.

Josh said...

Oops, it must have slipped my mind. I'll have to correct that.