The Executioner's Song

Looking back on his long life, the former death-row prison guard Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) reckons he never saw the likes of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), the convicted killer who arrived in shackles at his Southern prison one day in 1935. A looming seven-foot black man condemned to death for the rape and murder of two 9-year-old white girls, Coffey turns out to be a regular sweetheart. Gentle, childlike, ignorant and afraid of the dark, he doesn't strike the observant Paul as a man capable of such atrocities.

If the guard (or the audience) has any doubts about Coffey's innocence, these doubts are pretty much erased one hour into "The Green Mile," the second adaptation of a Stephen King prison tale from writer-director Frank ("The Shawshank Redemption") Darabont. In the movie's first--and nearly last--surprising moment, Coffey reaches outside his prison bars and yanks Edgecomb up against his face. Placing his huge hands on the guard's groin, Coffey proceeds (with the help of glowing lights, blowing fuses and soaring music) to magically cure the guard of a painful urinary-tract infection. Aha! So "The Green Mile" isn't just another wronged-man prison drama, and John Coffey isn't just your run-of-the-mill, old-fashioned Noble Savage. No, he's a saintly, New Age Noble Savage--which, in 1999, doesn't make the stereotype much less offensive.

Darabont's movie, trawling for Oscars, arrives amid a flurry of expectation and hype. What's up there on screen, however, is a lumbering, self-important three-hour melodrama that defies credibility at every turn. Who are these people? What planet are we on? Not only is Hanks's blissfully married character the nicest, most sensitive prison guard in the history of the Southern penal system, his three death-row colleagues (played by David Morse, Barry Pepper and Jeffrey DeMunn) are nearly as caring and genteel. Running a close third is the warden (James Cromwell), whose loving wife is dying of cancer (can you guess where that plot strand is heading?). In keeping with the movie's Old Hollywood view of reality, the villains are painted in strokes broad enough for any 2-year-old to hate them. Every scene in which the sadistic guard Percy (Doug Hutchison) appears--stomping on an inmate's pet, gloating at executions, then peeing in his pants when scared--makes the same point: this man is BAD! Ditto for "Wild Bill" Wharton (Sam Rockwell), a snarling psychotic serial killer who pisses in more aggressive ways. (What's with this movie's urinary obsession?) "The Green Mile" seems to have been directed to the tick of a metronome set in the 1950s--everything's given equal weight (heavy); nothing is left for us to discover ourselves.

"Shawshank" had wonderful narrative surprises that pulled the rug out from under us. "Green Mile's" plotting--perhaps because King originally wrote it in serial form--barely makes sense. Stop reading here to avoid major plot revelations. Though Edgecomb is convinced of Coffey's innocence--and even knows who the real killer is--he makes no effort to stop the execution. We're supposed to believe it's hopeless, but it seems anything but. (It's interesting that the warden, who could help--and whose wife Coffey heals--disappears from the end of the movie.) King and Darabont want Coffey to make a sacrificial, Christ-like exit in the electric chair so we can all feel bad for him and good about ourselves. Like so many well-meaning, unconsciously racist Hollywood dramas of the past, the black man's death serves mainly to highlight his white defender's exquisite sensibilities. Of course the mysterious Coffey isn't a man at all, but a trumped-up symbol of the triumph of the human spirit. Which is helpful. The next time we run into a dumb but gentle seven-foot black saint with mystical powers, we'll be sure to be nice.