The Green Mile (1999, Frank Darabont)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Frank Darabont is a class-conscious, priggish, namby-pamby puritan. Stephen King writes freaky books. Tom Hanks is a good comedic actor who made a lot of terrible Oscar-winning dramas for the last twenty-five years. Combine them here for a moralistic, dismayingly unsophisticated nightmare of a movie. I don’t even know where to begin talking about The Green Mile. It’s such a stupid film, and such a long one, that the sheer volume of complaints and protests would threaten to swallow me whole if I wrote them all out. I must begin, though, with a simple question: Why are we still making films with capitalized Good Men and Bad Men? Do we understand how lazy it looks? In this film, every character is absolutely flawless except the two characters designated Evil, one a sadistic guard who wets himself, the other a sadistic, loudmouthed Death Row prisoner who, of course, talks about fucking men and thus strikes fear into the heart of the other Evil guy, who sure is Evil, but not Evil enough that he wouldn’t be disgusted by the very suggestion of anything remotely homosexual!

Darabont follows up his beloved directorial debut, The Shawshank Redemption, with what is essentially a pale rehash of that movie: again set in prison, again about a bond between a white and black man (Darabont’s addition in the earlier case, inherent to King’s material this time), and again rife with the kind of spiritual subtext that apparently gives the director multiple orgasms, pouring out into images and ideas that were tired in the days of Cecil B. DeMille. (But I can just hear his voice talking about how it’s only modern-day drudgery that leads me to believe these things have been done to death and I should just let myself go and fall in with The Timeless Transporting Power of the Motion Picture.) Shawshank, let’s be fair, was a fine movie. It does not deserve to be #1 or #2 or #3 or whatever it currently is on the IMDB Top 250 by a longshot, but it is still a competent and engaging piece of work. However, the bulk of credit for that must go to Stephen King; the entire story is structured within his novella, and Darabont adds far less than many other directors have to King’s writing.

Since I, like everyone else, fell under the spell of The Shawshank Redemption, I’ve struggled with the strangely pervasive awareness that as good as it was, it was probably good by accident. Because Darabont is not a moviemaker at heart; he is a preacher. Before Shawshank even attained its inflated reputation he was complaining about American popular culture as a cesspool of slackerdom and commercial cynicism, misguidedly characterizing Beavis and Butt-Head and The Simpsons as markers of a great societal ill, a sermon he seemed eager to let loose as soon as he became famous enough to be heard. In 2001, he gushed through the press rounds for The Majestic attempting to evoke Frank Capra and asked filmgoers to avoid their usual filthy entertainment choices in favor of the Sincerity of his film, in the process alienating the legions of movie fans who actually have seen and understood the films of Mr. Capra, who was anything but a sheltered boy scout. And then there’s the way he just seems to spout buzzwords every time he speaks; like Quentin Tarantino, he can’t get enough of his own genius and he really wants to tell you all about it.

On the DVD of The Shawshank Redemption, he actually mentions the “healing power of movies” in all seriousness at least three times, and most insultingly he does so over a scene that is a direct quote from Sullivan’s Travels which he is passing off as his own stirringly insightful invention. When interviewed about — naturally — Shawshank by Charlie Rose in 2004, he made sure to point out that he had been accused of being a merchant of sentimental sap, without any prompting whatsoever. He actually agrees with his critics, only he’s proud of this problem. It’s nearly as bad as Paul Haggis talking about his screenwriting being “a hammer” to shape the world with, and honestly believing that to be a good thing, the only difference being that Darabont at least made one good movie.

And if he made one, he can make more, which is why I’ve been reluctant to bitch about how much Darabont’s public attitudes have rubbed me the wrong way ever since he shoved himself into the spotlight. But given all his self-promotion, finally seeing The Green Mile it comes off to me as an embarrassment. This is Shawshank: The Greatest Hits, except with his newfound reputation, Darabont can now prattle on as much as he pleases; the movie is 184 minutes. It is not a situation in which such a length is justified. The story could be told in an hour. The length is utterly inexcusable. It alone prevents the film from achieving anything it sets out to do. And it’s not as if the director is treating this story as a special case to be handled very carefully so as not to disrupt the narrative “consistency” of King’s serialized novel. The Shawshank Redemption is 142 minutes; its length is more justified but still a bit troubling. The Majestic is 152 minutes. Obviously Darabont has a problem.

Honestly, though, even if he did tell the story in half the time, I’m still not convinced it’s worth the trouble. It isn’t very compelling. I was utterly disinterested in the allegorical elements of The Shawshank Redemption; the human element was all that mattered. The Green Mile is about its Christ parallels; they are inescapable. And I don’t find that kind of story enlightening or entertaining, particularly since for all the time he spends with his turtle-paced narrative, Darabont seems determined to extract any possibility of complexity or depth, every opportunity for individual expression squelched. The “good and evil” problem reigns supreme. The big dummy with the mouse, a near-precise repeat of a character from Shawshank, is presented as a gentle criminal who loves everyone and everything and never rocks the boat. He and the gifted Michael Clarke Duncan as the very Hollywood Magical Negro figure are so innocent and sweet-natured it’s sickening; I know Darabont doesn’t truly believe Death Row is like this (nor does King). But let’s get the blame out fairly: There’s always the sweetheart prisoner in these fucking movies. Always. And you never get to find out what the hell they did, either. Because of course that might make it slightly less comforable for the audience to admire them without complication, and we certainly don’t want the audience to have to work through something, or for the movie to earn some of its officially sanctioned Deeply Moving scenes in any serious fashion. Do we?

Then there’s the hotheaded guard played with sledgehammer gracelessnss by Doug Hutchison. What the fuck is this guy’s problem? He has no redeeming qualities, he hates everyone, he yells about everything, he botches an execution, tortures everyone around him, and of course, He Knows People, so they can’t get rid of him. How fucking convenient. In the end, his revelance to the story is somewhat dubious anyway, but lord knows we can’t have a movie without some horrible bastard to spoil everyone else’s fun. Maybe in your world people can have good and bad elements, but Darabont doesn’t believe in grays; that’s a Cynical Product of the Clinical Depressing Modern World. People are either nice or not nice, and that’s that! And the people who aren’t nice deserve to be shot or sent to mental wards, obviously. Sheesh. As much as you loved The Shawshank Redemption, everything that you could sense almost being wrong with that movie comes to fruition here.

So here we are, not a large number of months after Saving Private Ryan, with another Tom Hanks vehicle flanked on either end by flashback wraparound. In present day, our hero is in a rest home, but there’s really little point to the opening setup except to give Darabont more of a chance to preach his snobbery. He can’t resist taking a potshot at The Jerry Springer Show, which I’m sure really got his goat during the twenty minutes it was popular (so tasteless and vile!), and makes sure to include a wrongheaded, discomforting remark about “trailer trash.” This is Darabont the cultural critic, providing the real motivation for the narrative: all he wants to do is escape to the 1930s. Again. Even when he makes it there (thankfully; a few more minutes of his disdain for the cruel ’90s might well have led me to cough up my dinner), his warped morals can’t be silenced. Here’s your scenario: A woman has a brain tumor. On a good day, she looks like she’s been punched or tried to put on mascara without a mirror and sits outside staring into space. But on a bad day… oh gosh, folks… “she swears.” She must be rescued from the torment of this vile swearing. Oh, I’m sure the pain and agony are bad too and all, but man, what really gets you is the “goddamn” and the “fuck” and all that.

Some of the problems are obviously Stephen King, whose hyped Dickens imitation is full of story holes and annoyances. First of all, couldn’t Hanks’ affliction have been something a bit more, hmm, cinematic than a urinary infection? I know King includes stuff like this to keep things “down to earth” but I still don’t want to hear about it, and I’d rather not watch Tom Hanks trying to take a piss. For any reason. But past that, The Green Mile is insanely predictable. The instant you get wind of his problem and his hemming and hawing about his boss’ wife’s tumor, you know where this is going: The big guy will cure his crotch, the cogs in his head will start rolling, and he’ll have him save Mrs. Inoperable Brain. The film’s advertising slogan was “Miracles do happen.” That all depends on your definition of miracle. It’s not really a miracle that Duncan knows who killed the girls he’s accused of murdering and doesn’t tell anyone, it’s not a miracle that somehow no one noticed his talent until after he was sentenced to die, and of course it’s not a miracle that there is absolutely no way to avoid his execution. But it might very well be a miracle that the guilty party just happens to be the crazy bastard in the cell across from Duncan, played by Sam Rockwell. A miracle so annoying it discredits much of what happened before.

Much of the last half of The Green Mile hinges on Tom Hanks’ spiritual selfishness, depicted haphazardly as a crisis of conscience. He’s not interested in finding a way to keep this wonder boy from being put to death by talking to the right people or putting evidence together (this whole possibility is dismissed with Hanks simply saying “it wouldn’t work,” and that’s that). He’s just worried about whether God will judge him harshly for letting Jesus or whatever the guy’s name is be killed. So in the end, of course, we get to watch Michael Clarke Duncan’s face as he is fake-charged to death. And then we get a tasteless monologue from the old man Tom Hanks has become who says it’s a punishment that he was accidentally blessed by Duncan with an extremely long life, and now he’s all alone and his existence sucks. Roll credits.

Which is interesting because this ending is all the things Darabont professes to loathe about the modern world. It’s artificial Hollywood goo riding on easy cynicism about people, life, and its own way with the heartstrings; the rest of the movie was dispassionate assembly line product (the only moment that sticks out is those stupid CGI bugs that come flying out of the fucker’s mouth, what the fuck was that supposed to mean), the ending is hokey garbage. It’s maudlin because it attempts to drive emotions from the viewer out of something as absurd as (relatively) eternal life. But this isn’t real, so how is it applicable to the “human spirit” King is always rambling about? Darabont expects us to feel sorrow and pain and emotional outpouring over something that doesn’t exist, that has no human application in the real world, that he hasn’t shed any light on to compensate. It’s completely unearned.

I’m sick of talking about this lousy movie and why it’s lousy. Here’s what I liked about it. There are some lines that are fucking hilarious. “We were wandering around in the dark… and we found each other. We found each other in the dark.” Haha. But my favorite is when a character announces, don’t forget in the midst of the 1930s, “We’re in a Depression.” It reminds me of films that take place in World War II when people say “There’s a war on.” Um… that’s basically all I liked about the movie. And lord, it makes me all the more fearful of how close we came to letting Darabont spew all over Fahrenheit 451. The only disappointing thing about that not happening (with Mel Gibson, no less) is that I didn’t get to sabotage it personally somehow.

Anyway, I’m less sympathetic to this movie’s reputation and awarding by users of a spot on the IMDB 250 than I am to a lot of films I like even less, because The Green Mile really doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities, really is about the most lazily put together stash of movie factory junk I’ve ever seen, and basically coasts on the reputation and pedestal of its predecessor. There are threads at the IMDB board and comments saying things like “The art of film was invented for movies like this.” And people ask “Where did you start to cry?” But why does this make you cry? You don’t know anything about these people the way you would in a better film, you cry because the music and the director have officially sanctioned specific points for you to do so. I cry in lots of movies I don’t like because of this; however, The Green Mile meant so little to me I can’t honestly say I had any emotional response to it at all. It registered absolute zero as far as I’m concerned. It’s feel-bad, “inspirational” (ugh) cinema of the worst kind. No technical aspect compensates for all the storytelling doldrums in this nonentity. I’m surprised I was able to work up enough passion to hate it, but there is the matter of the running time. Again, 184 minutes. The first ninety of which pass before the first plot point. Thus half of the movie mostly concentrates on Tom Hanks’ inability to pee, which makes it sound more appealing than it is. Skip this movie and rent The Money Pit instead; you’ll learn a lot more about Stephen King’s fucking “human spirit” and you’ll see lots of better directing and acting. Fuck this cocksucking shit, as the brain tumor lady might say.

[Written and posted in 2007. I stand by every word, but I hope to avoid expending so much energy on things I hate in my thirties.]

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