I watched the first few minutes of The Green Mile awhile back–sometime after I returned to the US in 2006–but for some reason I stopped watching it. A few other prison movies came out starting with the Shawshank Redemption (1994) followed by Life (1999). The Green Mile came out the same year. When I started watching the latter movie this past Saturday night, I kept expecting things to happen that actually happened in the other two movies. I finally realized I’d never seen The Green Mile before. Tom Hanks had taken on a serious role. This took me by surprise. I’d never seen Tom Hanks act in anything other than comedies before. What’s more, this movie had no comic relief to speak of. A few indulgent smiles, perhaps, but laughter, no. Instead, it plunges the viewer into a prison world that exposes the last thoughts of condemned criminals.
I’ve always been drawn to stories about prison. Perhaps because my sister worked as s correctional officer in prison for almost twenty years. Maybe because my brother ministers to prisoners through his church. Or maybe because I’ve been involved in prison ministries overseas in my own way.
Most movie-goers know that the story revolves around death row in a southern prison in 1935. The inmates are portrayed in a sympathetic light and you feel for them as they “practice” their execution a few days beforehand (go through a dry run) so that everything goes smoothly the day of their actual execution. Paul (Hanks), as a head guard, seems to dislike this task more than his other dealings with the prisoners. He cuts out any joke and wants to complete the procedure quickly and efficiently.
The correction officers seem professional, even somewhat kind, to the prisoners on death row—all but one officer named Percy. Related to the governor, Percy enjoys being cruel, sadistic and vengeful on all levels. He is widely disliked by other correction officers and the prisoners alike. With the arrival of a gentle field hand, John Coffee, who is circumstantially convicted of raping and murdering two little girls, he brings somewhat of a change to the prison ambiance. He heals and brings new life to others simply by breathing into them.
For me, the story takes on a kind of modern-day Jesus theme. Like Jesus, Coffee comes from a humble background and simply loves people. Like Jesus, he is sentenced to be killed for a crime he didn’t commit. Later, we see that Coffee is indeed innocent as he psychically shows Paul through a handgrip exactly how the crime occurred. However, Coffee is willing to take the punishment feted upon him. The correction officers reminds me, in part, of Jesus’ disciples, when they learned about and respond to the powers and kindness of Coffee. Percy symbolizes a Judas Iscariot character, loyal to none but himself and, like Judas, realizes he has sold his soul too late to retrieve it.
I found some parts of the movie disturbing. An execution scene gone-wrong (presumably because Percy wanted revenge on the prisoner for laughing at him earlier) is prolonged, overly-graphic and traumatic. The correctional officers stand around, helpless to stop the horror that unfolds and even Percy is shocked, though unrepentant at the sadism he caused. A mouse is stomped on and killed (though brought back to life by Coffee). I wondered if a mouse had truly been sacrificed for the making of this movie. Finally, Percy’s character seemed true-to-life until the final scene (which I will not divulge in case any of you reading this has yet to see the movie) and then it fell into a negative stereotype.
The Green Mile raises a lot of questions about the degrees of man’s humanity—where the line blurs between good and bad with everyone. It deals with themes of racism, trust, honor, religion, friendship and betrayed innocence. Much of this movie was portrayed well. Watching it makes me evaluate how I view people and reminds me to seek out the good.
Days after I finished watching the movie, these characters still come to mind. I feel for them. I hear their voices. I am empathetic to their situations. The hallmark of great writing, the telling of a profound story and excellent acting comes when you can’t get a character out of your mind. The Green Mile certainly affected me this way.