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‘The Green Mile’ (1999) and the What Am I Going To Say Moment

In 1930s Louisiana, a man waits on death row, his enormous, muscular frame counter to his timid, child-like personality. The men who guard him learn of his extraordinary, seemingly magical, healing abilities, forced to condemn him for a terrible crime, as they question their own morals and place in the world.

Directed by Frank Darabont and adapted from the Stephen King book, The Green Mile is a flashback film told by an elderly man in a home, recalling the single most affecting prisoner he ever came to meet in his career on Cold Mountain Penitentiary’s infamous Death Row Green Mile. Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, a man haunted by a past where he carried out an order to execute a man he knows is innocent. John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) is a sweet, gentle soul, a shy and easily frightened man in the shell of a mountain, a body that looms like a tower and casts a pall of worry upon his arrival. When he cures Edgecomb of a bladder infection simply by laying his hands upon him, Edgecomb is bewildered yet grateful. Coffey claims all he did was “take it back” and demonstrates he is capable of much more. In the confines of the small block where the guards and few inmates must interact, Coffey’s influence widens, and the truth about how he came to the Green Mile steadily degenerates. The film is justifiably long, nearly three hours, not a frame wasted, with performances that are more than moving, they are affecting. Duncan delivers the greatest performance of his tragically short career, creating in a Coffey a character of limitless compassion that is stirring to witness. Hanks though is transcending. We’ve come to expect so much from his work that it is easy to miss how truly moving he is here, a performance that equals and even exceeds much of what he’s done before. Beautifully filmed and scripted, with a strong supporting cast, The Green Mile is a deeply emotional and satisfying experience.

That Moment: The source of Coffey’s gift is never explicitly explained, religiously empowered or otherwise, though he is a spiritual man with a profound faith. With a touch he consumes the darkness of suffering and releases it out of his mouth in swarms, a thick mass of angry buzz that dissipates into the air. Witness to the healing abilities that Coffey carries with him, and learning the real story of his alleged conviction, Edgecomb speaks with the prisoner about how to move forward, suggesting that he can take steps to free him. Coffey refuses, and in a tears, describes how he can feel the suffering in the world, that it is in his head like shards of glass, and by executing him, Edgecomb would be doing him a kindness.

Why it Matters: The remarkable thing about The Green Mile is how well Coffey is defined. A man of supreme physical strength, he is vulnerable with great fear in his heart. We see such wondrous magic stem from his hands, the gift of healing and even life, and yet the hulking figure, who we presume should be angelic, empowered and strong-willed, is just the opposite. This moment reveals the dark weight of his enchantment, the burden of seeing and feeling the pain of others and how a lifetime of it has left him in constant sorrow. Coffey has devoted himself, a messenger of hope and salvation, to ridding the anguish of suffering from those who deserve it, and yet the toll is too much, the affliction of so many too heavy on his soul. We imagine ourselves feeling like we could endure, the power of healing and resuscitating life one so rich with possibilities, the prospect of losing it, almost impossible to grasp, yet Coffey convinces us it is more a curse than a gift, a band about his neck that throttles his own desire to live. Edgecomb questions his future, in death, judged for the action he is about to commit, though Coffey relieves him of that, we are left with lingering thoughts as well about who he is and why he has come, though none are (wisely) answered. Coffey chooses death over the power to save lives, and Edgecomb, like us, must wonder about the responsibility of such a gift, but more importantly, our selfishness in thinking there is any.



Frank Darabont


Stephen King (novel), Frank Darabont (screenplay)


Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse

Clip courtesy Movieclips
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