In a marvelous year filled with exciting, medium-bending, forward-thinking cinema, The Green Mile—an adaptation of Stephen King's popular six-part serial—stands out as old-fashioned and horribly regressive, a ripe chunk of Oscar bait served up with broad sentimental hooks and a lack of moral ambiguity. Don't be distracted by that faint hammering sound in the background; it's only writer-director Frank Darabont mounting an extra shelf in his den, ready to collect on the belated success of his other King-based prison drama, The Shawshank Redemption. Unfolding at a super-inspirational three hours, with ample time devoted to Tom Hanks' bladder infection and the antics of a talented mouse named Mr. Jingles, The Green Mile grazes hot-button issues of capital punishment and religion, but never enough to offend anybody. Confined mostly to a death-row cellblock in Depression-era Louisiana, the story concerns a solemn group of prison guards, led by Hanks, whose lives are altered by hulking black inmate Michael Clarke Duncan, a childlike naif with mysterious healing powers. Among the noble watchmen (David Morse, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn) and saintly convicts (Graham Greene, Michael Jeter) are two bad seeds, a sadistic officer (Doug Hutchison) with connections to the governor and a remorseless child killer (Sam Rockwell). Intended as a Christ figure—King even names him John Coffey (J.C.) in case anyone misses the point—Duncan does the requisite suffering and miracle-working, but with characters so clearly evil (Rockwell and Hutchison) and clearly good (everyone else), judgment is a relative snap. So it is, too, for Hanks, whose tortured misgivings about the death penalty are met with instant absolution. With its vague spirituality and simple moral clarity, The Green Mile cannily skirts potentially divisive issues to appease everyone in its intended audience. Why should they get in the way of tear-wringing bits about mouse circuses or non-denominational angels? Or whatever else Darabont can unload in his seemingly inexhaustible reserves of phony uplift?
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