On Dec. 10, 1999, Warner Bros. unveiled Stephen King adaptation The Green Mile in theaters, where it would go on to gross $286 million globally. The film earned four Oscar nominations at the 72nd Academy Awards, including best picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
The Green Mile weighs in at three hours, the running time of Titanic and only 42 minutes shorter than such epics as Lawrence of Arabia and Gone With the Wind. Yet The Green Mile is a modest prison tale about relationships among a group of Southern death row prison guards in 1935 and the prisoners they watch, including a childlike giant with healing powers.
Based on Stephen King’s 1996 serialized novel, the Warner Bros. film feels as if it comes from a short story, a small slice of time and place in which a sentimental fable about one of “God’s miracles” can blossom. By inflating the simple story with a languorous pace, pregnant pauses, long reaction shots and an infinitely slow metabolism, writer-director Frank Darabont has burdened his movie version with more self-importance than it can possibly sustain.
Despite fine performances by Tom Hanks and an excellent ensemble cast, The Green Mile looks like a tough sell for the holidays. Undoubtedly, the film will win admirers among moviegoers and critics and may perform well in ancillary markets.
This is Darabont’s second outing as a director — his first was 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption — and this time, the story is told in flashbacks by an ancient fellow in an old-folks home (Dabbs Greer) about his days as a death row head guard at Cold Mountain Penitentiary during the Depression.
Curiously, the main story takes more than an hour to get under way. Instead, the movie acquaints viewers with the lives and attitudes of a handful of guards and inmates.
There is the crusty Cajun convict (Michael Jeter) who adopts and trains a pet mouse, and a thoroughly sadistic psycho nicknamed “Wild Bill” (Sam Rockwell). Hanks, the head guard, and his chief assistant (David Morse) experience less trouble from the condemned men than from a mean-spirited fellow guard (Doug Hutchison) who is unqualified for a job he obtained through high-level political connections.
On the periphery are Harry Dean Stanton as a crackpot trustee, James Cromwell as the well-meaning warden and Patricia Clarkson and Bonnie Hunt as Cromwell and Hanks’ wives.
At the end of the Row 8 death row cells — the “Green Mile” — sits John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a mountain of a man with a gentle, naive nature. This huge black man hardly seems capable of raping and murdering 9-year-old twin sisters, and Hanks gradually suspects a miscarriage of justice.
More remarkably, Hanks witnesses two instantaneous healings in which Coffey seems to pull toxins out of the sufferer and into his body. Moments later, as overhead lights burn and explode and the special effects boys do their stuff, Coffey exhales the poisons in a blizzard of tiny black specks that rush upward and then vanish.
Hanks, in an unusually reactive role, investigates Coffey’s legal case only briefly and his supernatural powers not in the slightest. It takes another hour for the penny to drop and for Hanks to wonder if Coffey could possibly help the warden’s wife, who is suffering horribly from a brain tumor.
Nearly every twist, like getting Coffey to heal the cancer victim, is wholly predictable. Thus, the film’s snail’s pace only widens the gap by which the audience will stay ahead of plot developments.
The moviemaking is heartfelt, and the technical crew has established period moods and details nicely. Undoubtedly, Darabont felt he needed to be faithful to King’s story by capturing every nuance. But, ultimately, stretching and squeezing each moment might have been more of a disservice to King.
The simple fable can’t stand such scrutiny. More pivotally, the weight given to each moment lends The Green Mile a ponderousness that works against the emotions the story seems to want to plug into.
Hanks, puffy-faced and solemn, anchors the film with his stolid presence. But there’s little vitality in his performance. Instead, the film relies on the Cajun and Wild Bill for its liveliness. Despite the running time, most of the other characters are given short shrift: We learn little about two other guards (Barry Pepper and Jeffrey DeMunn); the wives; Graham Greene, playing the first inmate we see executed; or Stanton. And nearly everyone is upstaged by the mouse. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published Nov. 29, 1999.