Monday, 7 December 2009

I just can't see God putting a gift like that in the hands of a man who would kill a child.

No 331 - The Green Mile
Director - Frank Darabont

Saturday was the excellent Karmageddon. Which I compered. Where I got drunk and left my compere's notebook at the venue.
It had my Green Mile notes in. Time to wing it.

Frank Darabont seems to do quite well with Stephen King's material, especially within a prison setting. He made the excellent Shawshank Redemption and then he pulled this out the bag. Both deal with people being wrongly accused and imprisoned. Both films are slow and meandering, winding through a series of characters rater than an intense plot. The plot for The Green Mile can be explained in one sentence. A man with healing powers is sentenced to death. The rest of the film is just a series of events which happen in that setting.

That seems like a weird way to describe a film, surely all films are just a series of events in a setting. But what is important about the Green Mile is that a lot of the events aren't important to the plot. There are no interweaving subplots. We're just watching the lives of the people on death row, guards and inmates. We're sharing the fears of the inmates, the little (rare) moments of joy that come into their lives and the constant feeling of fear when death is on the horizon. We see the individual solace of the inmates and the sense of camaraderie and necessary gallows humour within the guards.
It is a captivating 3 hour slice of proper old fashioned story telling. A window into other people's lives and one of the saddest films I have ever seen.

The thing that really makes this film are the performances. They are all incredible but there are 3 people who deserve a special mention. One of whom is the epitome of good. And the other two are just horrid.

John Coffey played by Michael Clarke Duncan. Now Michael Clarke Duncan is giant anyway (6 foot 5 and 142kg) but they've used some kind of trickery to make him look around 8 foot tall. He is enormous. Considering what he is sent to jail for, it has even more impact when he asks for the lights to be left on.
John Coffey is the kindest, gentlest soul in the world. He suffers on so many levels. Firstly he has been wrongly accused and sentenced to death. Secondly he is an intimidatingly large black man in the depression era Southern States, finally he feels the cruelty and pain of every body around him.
None of this is nice. What is impressive, is that John Coffey's soft, gentle and timid personality shines through his giant frame. It is an incredible performance. He doesn't seem awkward. He doesn't seem unnatural. He is genuinely timid trembling petal in a hulking brutal body.

It is all the more impressive when contrasted with the smaller, more sinister figures.

Firstly, let us remain BEHIND bars with 'Wild Bill' Wharton. Sam Rockwell is an incredible actor, just look at the amazing amount of interest there has been in him this year. His performance of the horrible horrible Wild Bill is incredible.
His performance is just a pure powerhouse. From the moment where we first see him, apparently doped up to the eyeballs before he breaks free and attempts to kill the guards. His constant goading of those around him.
He destroys his room, he swings on the bars. He pisses on the guards and spits out food on them.

He is completely inappropriate, but he is sort of the comic relief in the film. His performance is so rich, so complete, that throughout the sadness of everything else (this is, after all, a film about death) his antics made me smile. As did the fact that he's constantly being hosed down and dragged to solitary.

So whilst Wild Bill is a bit of a twat (and a raping murdering scumball), but essentially he is one of those people who are deliberately antagonistic.
The kind of contrary bastard you'd expect behind bars on death row.

Which means he isn't a patch on my final character

Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison, who plays Horace in Lost... if anyone is still watching Lost). One of the prison guards that have got in through their contacts and painted as genuinely the most horrible person in the film. What I like about this film is that with the exception of Coffey (and he was wrongly accused) you're never told why any of the prisoners are on death row. You're made to make your own judgements and most of them are painted quite nicely. For all we know, Mr Delacroix could be the cruelest most tactical cold blooded murderer. But once behind bars he is quite sweet, so we like him.
It is the same with the guards, they tend to their inmates. There seems to be a lot of trust between the guards and their inmates. They seem to be a happy family. Its that angle to the film that makes the execution scenes so sad.

Percy is the exception to the rule. He will taunt the inmates, antagonise them. He frequently causes them physical pain. His role in Eduard Delecroix's execution is so unspeakably cruel that you'll just want to kick him.
But what makes it worse is he is just a slimy coward. For all his tough talking he still stands there rigid with fear when Wild Bill attacks the guards.

He will never be Brutus.

There are of course other characters that should be mentioned. Tom Hanks is surprisingly good in this film, and in fact the whole cast of guards are brilliant and feel like a proper team of friends with a full back history. However the story at the heart of this film is Coffey's and so I'm going to focus on him.

It is probably fair to say that this is King's 'Jesus Story' about a man who is good, who heals people and who is wrongly sentenced to death. It follows Hanks' realisation that Coffey couldn't be the child raping murderer that he has been accused of and it follows Coffey's little miracles. Both bringing mice to life, or healing the diseases in the guards around him.
The story about the warden's wife having cancer and then being healed shows the full range of Coffey's power - and the strange after effects which come with Coffey having to 'cough up' the pain.
It also introduces some of Coffey's other powers. The fact that he can feel other people's pain. The fact that when he touches people he knows all about them, including all their secrets. What I like is that the full range of Coffey's powers are never explained. Nor is it explained who he is, where he came from or how he came to be so powerful. This film is not that bogged down in set pieces moving a plot on.

This is not a superhero origins movie. This is just life on death row. Which sadly means that Coffey has to go down. The respect (and tears) in the eyes of the guards and the warden combined with the hate and vitriol in the eyes of Coffey's victims make for a really hard scene to watch. It is heart breaking to see Coffey be electrocuted and to know that his friends have to perform that act.
The scene is shot a little bit over sentimentally - with slow motion and showers of light. But it works, it is oddly beautiful.
It could make for a really bleak final chapter. So thankfully the film (and indeed the book) is bookended with a beginning and end set in contemporary times with an old Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks' character) telling the tale.

The nice little twist at the end (which I won't give away for a change) means that you're left with a kind of nice feeling. That's the whole point of this film. It isn't a thrill riot. It isn't a fast moving plot to get from A to B. It is just a captivating story with fascinating characters and phenomenal acting.

PS- I couldn't find anywhere apt to say this but... I'm pretty sure James Cromwell (who plays the Warden) is in a competition with Michael Caine to be in every film franchise ever. I mean it is ridiculous.

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