I really wanted to like The Green Mile. I really did. Partly just because in general I want movies to be good (who sits down at a movie thinking "I hope this is really bad"?). Partly because it stars Tom Hanks, who exudes likability and who deserves credit for the thoughtful film choices that have made him the most successful actor of the last decade, and also because it stars Michael Clarke Duncan, who like Hanks elicits goodwill. Partly because, like the popular Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile is a prison film directed by Frank Darabont from a Stephen King story, and it’s nice to see lightning strike twice. And also partly because I was intrigued by the film’s promise of spiritual overtones and Christian imagery.
And, in fact, The Green Mile is not unpleasantly or oppressively bad. In a lot of ways it’s like the mysterious character played by Duncan: immense, ponderous, elusively spiritual, dimwitted to be sure, but so well-meaning and good-hearted that any criticism or persecution seems somehow mean and unfair. The great difference between the man and the movie is that Duncan’s character never asked or wanted to be anything special, yet he was; while The Green Mile desperately wants to be important, meaningful, and uplifting, and it isn’t. Thus, while Duncan’s character was wrongly sentenced to die, The Green Mile deserves its lumps.
Other critics have already criticized the film on several fronts: social, aesthetic, cultural. In keeping with the general principles of this site, I’ll give priority to the spiritual and religious implications of the story. At the heart of The Green Mile is a powerful, compelling figure of almost preternatural innocence and goodness whose origins are obscure — one character describes him as having "fallen from the sky" — and who possesses a mysterious power to take the suffering of others upon himself. He is also able to weigh men’s hearts, and is startlingly capable of judgment and vengeance as well as mercy and healing.
For all his power, he suffers terribly under the weight of the world’s hatred and violence. Though he does no wrong, he is wrongly sentenced to die and executed. He dies offering his executioners forgiveness, his mind already on heaven. His initials are J. C., and, though John Coffey is not an allegory of Jesus Christ like Aslan or the Lamb of Revelation, nevertheless he is obviously a Christlike figure, who, like such figures as Frodo, King Arthur, and King David, embodies many qualities and attributes that find their ultimate realization in our Lord.
All of this is fine so far as it goes. But how far is that? Consider, first of all, that those whose lives Coffey touches may find relief from physical ailments, but their hearts and spirits seem strangely untransformed. They are moved by John Coffey’s goodness, to be sure, but seem no freer, more hopeful, or nobler for the experience.
Even Paul Edgecomb (Hanks, at times sounding more like Forrest Gump than any character who is meant to have all his faculties should sound), who is Coffey’s closest "believer" and recipient of his most remarkable gift, is in the end left with guilt, loneliness, and despair. Though the film claims Coffey "infected him with life," Edgecomb looks forward only to death, with no implication that death for him means anything other than release from the sorrows of this vale of tears. (There’s a scene early in the film when a condemned man [Graham Greene] on his way to the electric chair asks Edgecomb whether he believes that those who repent of their wrongdoing can look forward to a heaven of eternally inhabiting their happiest memory; and Edgecomb solemnly tells him, "I just ’bout believe that very thing." But then the next condemned man to die is an eccentric old coot [Michael Jeter] whose only concern is for the fate of the mouse he has tamed, and Edgecomb and the other guards with equal solemnity assure him that his mouse will be taken to a nonexistent mouse circus in Florida; and whatever weight Edgecomb’s words of comfort to the first prisoner might have had evaporates.)
Even John Coffey’s own death, though moving, is also oddly hollow. In life Coffey’s sufferings are redemptive, bringing healing to others; but his death brings nothing to anyone, except again release for himself from the torments of life. Indeed, though he extends forgiveness to his executioners, including Edgecomb, his death becomes for Edgecomb a source of crushing guilt and sorrow that he continues to carry decades later; which is probably more or less the same effect Good Friday would have had on the disciples had it not been followed by Easter Sunday.
Make no mistake: This is not simply a theological quarrel. My complaint with The Green Mile is not simply that it fails as Christian allegory, but that it fails as uplifting or profound storytelling of any kind. It tells us about a force that Hank’s character describes as "one of God’s miracles," yet this "miracle of God" brings none of the characters closer either to any vision or understanding of God or to greater understanding of themselves; it brings no faith; offers no hope; illuminates no truth (beyond obvious platitudes such as "people hurt one another" and "miracles happen"). It’s the story of a martyr who dies for no cause, of a wonder-worker with the power to do great good who allows himself to be put to death for no better reason than that he’s tired of people hurting one another and (once his last request to see a "flicker-show" is granted) can think of nothing in particular he’d want out of life anyway. Not that I necessarily fault Coffey for his willingness to die; but neither do I think that his story is particularly worth telling, except as a curiosity.
And The Green Mile aspires to be about much more than a curiosity. In its epic length, its stately pacing, its flashback storytelling bookended by a prologue and epilogue of the Hanks character as an old man, its dramatic slow-motion shots of lights exploding, its Christological themes and other spiritual imagery (a St. Christopher medal, a healing touch, evil made visible as a swarm of insects, judgment issuing forth from the mouth of a supernatural being), The Green Mile telegraphs its weighty intentions — intentions it cannot remotely deliver on.
And I haven’t yet begun to touch upon the many other respects in which the film invites criticism: The socio-historical implausibility of Edgecomb and his team of enlightened, gentle, liberal death-row guards existing in 1935 Louisiana; the dubious racial-political implications of a story centered on what one critic called a "magic black man" who serves white men (all of whom he addresses as "boss"), taking their hardship upon himself, and then dies while absolving them of all guilt; the narrative problem of a story that doesn’t tell the audience up-front what kind of story it is, what the rules of the universe are, introducing its supernatural element only after the film is a good bit underway; the manipulative methodology of the film, in which every character that is not pure and good is repulsive and loathsome, and commits atrocity after atrocity simply to get the audience clamoring for his punishment; or even the odd recurrence of the theme of urination, in which, by my count, three different male characters engage in at least half a dozen acts of peeing.
And yet it’s too well-made to be really bad or unwatchable. The acting is uniformly good, and although the story is long and languorous, it’s hard to point to particular scenes that are just padding or dead wood. There are three actual executions (and two rehearsals) that take up more time than you might think, but it all serves the plot; and the middle execution especially, in which something goes awry, is so horrifying that the very possibility of such a thing happening seems a powerful argument against at least this form of capital punishment. There are other standout scenes as well: When Coffey is spirited out of prison to heal a dying character, he becomes something like a force of nature; and the film has a few surprises that are genuinely powerful and arresting. And it’s refreshing to watch a film in which the characters take for granted the assumptions of their Christian culture.
But there’s no payoff. Even the secret of Coffey’s final gift to Edgecomb conveys no sense of wonder or significance. In the end, I came away from this film without anything in particular I could point to that made the experience worthwhile, yet also without a sense of having wasted three hours of my life. The positive and negative factors seem to me to pretty much exactly cancel one another out, leaving me with a film that I am no more able to recommend seeing or avoiding than I was before I saw it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.