Massa Peal

What's Old Testament is new: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, and David Morse in The Green Mile

The Green Mile
area theaters, starts Friday

Within the sentimental realm of quasi-religious holiday movies, The Green Mile, starring Tom Hanks, scores a number of startling firsts. Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey may have hit some hard times, but he certainly didn't have to suffer a bladder infection--unlike Hanks's death-row guard Paul Edgecomb, who writhes (along with the viewer) through several painfully humble pees. I can't think of another mainstream film, especially one released between Thanksgiving and New Year's, that graphically showcases three electric-chair executions, including one featuring flames erupting from the condemned's eye-holes. And where but in this Green Mile would you find a completely unironic scenario in which white, marital sex gets a Viagra-like kick via the grasp of a black male hand on a white penis?

Of course, none of this will surprise the millions who bought the six installments of Stephen King's 1996 serialized novel. And it probably won't faze fans of director Frank Darabont's other prison drama, The Shawshank Redemption, which spotlit an escapee's 500-foot crawl through a sewer pipe full of what sewer pipes are usually full of. (Darabont didn't co-write A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and The Fly II for nothing.) The rest of us may be laughing in all the wrong places--I certainly was--at least until The Green Mile's tonal absurdities become dulled by the glacial pace of its three-hour tour. This movie's spiritual miracles don't involve the one most essential to cinema: the suspension of time.

Darabont's film makes other claims for cinema--its images are like "angels up in heaven" for one character. And The Green Mile absolutely desires to be uplifting. Told in flashback by an elderly Edgecomb, the story concerns a prisoner condemned in 1935 to a Southern death row called Block E (where buildings now go to die). John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a massive black man, has been convicted of the rape and murder of two cute blond girls. Coffey has, Edgecomb soon finds, a sweet and simple disposition, along with a convenient party trick: He can heal the sick. He may also, the guard suspects, be innocent. His name, Coffey says, is "like the drink but not spelled the same"; he repeats the line until you realize that you're supposed to spell it "JC."

A friend tells me The Shawshank Redemption has attracted a cult following for its supposed Christian iconography. I don't really see it, save for Tim Robbins's Jesus Christ pose in the post-escape downpour. That film--and especially the friendship of Robbins's and Morgan Freeman's characters at the center of it--seemed to me more a white man's apologia for slavery and racism. (Freedom? "I'll take you there!") The Green Mile overtly revisits the Christ-on-the-cross story, even down to the jeering crowd, the guard with the wet sponge, and the open-hearted condemned man, although here he is dark-skinned and "simple" (eek!). Under this supernatural sideshow, however, Darabont and King are still worrying about the white need for black forgiveness.

With his undependable Southern accent, Hanks here plays the everywhiteman (his cross to bear) petitioning Coffey for absolution, even as he silences him with death. Coffey, the only black among the main and supporting characters (just as Freeman's Red was in Shawshank), becomes the de facto African-American representative: that he has the mind of a child could be considered a tiny bit offensive. That Edgecomb and the other guards develop an awe for Coffey's primitive power (he apparently feels and heals pain without much conscious control), his overflowing sexuality (lust a byproduct of the healing!), and his understanding acquiescence to massa--well, there's nothing like wrapping your arms around a reductive stereotype to make you feel cleansed...and superior.

The noble Coffey, expressing a more savage side, is allowed to strike back at a few of the prison/plantation tormentors (not the nice ones, though). This embrace of revenge may confound gentler children of God: As in their earlier collaboration, King and Darabont's idea of justice bears quite an Old Testament cast, and not just in its cruelty. (Why is the worst villain's name "Percy"? Say it with a Southern accent.) The director has so much fun fetishizing his violence--accompanying electrocutions with thunder, lightning, and bursting light bulbs; punching sassy mouths till they're bloody--that the film's brutality appears more heavenly than the healings. It doesn't help that the spaces between fights are so boring (don't talk to me about the mouse!) and/or awesomely boneheaded. The Green Mile cries crocodile tears with its fists up, screaming, "I'm no faggot!" Note to the new male weepie: You can't shake hands wearing boxing gloves.

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