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Green Mile, The

Warner Bros. // R // December 1, 2009 // Region 0
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 10, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Writer/director Frank Darabont quips throughout the extras on this disc that he's tethered himself to the narrowest genre there is: period adaptations of Stephen King prison stories. His first was, of course, The Shawshank Redemption: a film that made little impact at the box office but was lavished with seven Academy Award nominations and proved to be a colossal success on TV and video. Darabont's sophomore effort as a feature film director, The Green Mile, was an immediate hit, grossing nearly five times what Shawshank had in the U.S.: no small feat for a three-hour character drama set almost entirely in a sleepy Southern prison in 1935. This film too would go on to be nominated for a number of Oscars, including nods for Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. Following an essentially no-frills DVD in 2000, The Green Mile eventually did receive a far more impressive re-release six years later, and that special edition is now making its way to Blu-ray.

The Green Mile is hardly the grueling horror flick you might expect from a movie with Stephen King's name on the bill. This is a story about hope, and the irony isn't lost that a fable suggesting that a second chance is rarely out of reach happens to be set on death row. 'The green mile' is the nickname given to the faded stretch of linoleum that leads to the electric chair at Coal Mountain Louisiana State Penitentiary. This cell block is overseen by Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), and as the movie opens, life seems uneventful enough. Edgecomb struggles more with a urinary tract infection and a sadistic, well-connected guard named Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) than any of his inmates. This is all upended when a seven-foot behemoth steps foot off the truck and is brought into E Block. His name's John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan)...y'know, like the drink, only spelled diff'rent. Though the quiet, respectful, and simple Coffey certainly seems to be a gentle giant, he has been judged guilty of the rape and savage murder of two adolescent girls. Coffey doesn't protest, though, settling into his waning months on death row with two other prisoners: the Cajun-fried Del (Michael Jeter) and the stoic Bitterbuck (Graham Greene). E Block is a place of many contradictions. Though Wetmore teases and torments his prisoners -- seemingly only waiting around to watch one of them fry -- Edgecomb and the other guards (David Morse and Barry Pepper) treat them with compassion. This is a place where those sentenced to death while away their final days, and yet the miraculous gift of John Coffey bestows upon it an impossible life.

Though it's certainly marching towards a clearly defined endpoint -- after all, take a look at John Coffey's initials and think back to the last sacrificial lamb with a similarly miraculous power -- The Green Mile is hardly driven by its overall plot. Its runtime doesn't cross the three hour mark because the dense plotting demands it; the strength of the performances bring to life characters with whom I want to spend so much time, and this is from someone who's generally crying for sleeker, more efficient storytelling. The counter may start ticking downward from three hours and eight minutes, but it feels closer to half that. Even though The Green Mile does hit some of the same notes repeatedly -- count how many scenes there are with Edgecomb struggling with his urinary tract infection or delighting to another performance by the talented mouse Mr. Jingles -- the film never feels as if it's merely
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running in place.

What's particularly intriguing is just how compelling these characters are despite being defined largely by their role in the plot. There's little gray area here between good and evil, and Wetmore and a completely unhinged inmate nicknamed "Wild Bill" are both repulsive villains. There are glimmers of Wetmore's recognition of his cruelty -- it's more of a childish drive to torment, much like the kids torching ants at the outset of The Wild Bunch -- but he doesn't settle into some familiar redemptive arc. With as unforgivably cruel as he can be, including one malevolent decision during an execution that leads to something genuinely disturbing, Wetmore never comes close to deserving redemption. Sam Rockwell is an inspired choice to play the psychopathic Wild Bill, and The Green Mile releases the tether and lets him quite literally go nuts. The movie teases with the idea that Bill may just be a troublemaker -- disruptive but ultimately harmless -- but he proves to be something much, much worse.

Wild Bill and Wetmore aside, the other prisoners and their guards get along just fine. There's the matter of simply being humane, of course, but it's practical too; treating the inmates with some measure of respect minimizes the chances of anyone snapping, and the guards' job at the end of the day is to maintain that sort of order. Though we rarely see any of them outside of the walls of E Block, the characters are all still clear and distinct from one another. It goes without saying that Tom Hanks offers a compelling and immediately likeable performance, and even though his other two comrades on the floor are thinly-sketched by comparison, I enjoyed the time I had to spend with them as well. The Green Mile is bolstered further by a terrific supporting cast, including turns by Bonnie Hunt, Gary Sinise, William Sadler, Harry Dean Stanton, Patricia Clarkson, and James Cromwell.

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strictly as a character, John Coffey isn't terribly interesting. He's part of the reason Spike Lee would later sneer at the "super-duper magical negro" archetype; a gentle, simpleminded black man who has magical powers rather than much of a personality and is really only there to help a white protagonist complete his emotional journey. Duncan does exist somewhat as a plot device -- he has no friends we see outside the prison, no family to speak of, no past, and seemingly no needs or desires -- but I don't see that as necessarily being bad. The Green Mile at its core is a fable: subtlety and nuance don't really enter into the equation, and it's not as if Coffey is getting short thrift while the other characters are more richly drawn in the screenplay in the first place. What depth and dimension they have come purely from their performances, and what marvelous performances they are. Coffey marked the first dramatic role from Michael Clarke Duncan after a series of bit parts playing the likes of "Bouncer #2", and his Academy Award nomination for the accomplished and intensely emotional performance he offers here is richly deserved.

The Green Mile has been criticized for its oversentimentality and its heavy-handed Christian allegory, but again, the film to my eyes is a fable, and a reduction to something more black and white doesn't seem altogether out of place in this sort of story. The Green Mile is reasonably deft with its emotional manipulation, and I never felt as if it were grabbing me by the shoulders and barking that it's time for me to weep the way artless Oscar bait so frequently does. Some have argued that there's no need for the film to have a three hour runtime, and while it's true that this isn't some sort of sweeping epic cut from the David Lean cloth, I never once found myself staring longingly at my watch either. If a movie doesn't feel as if it's too long, who cares what the digits on the counter happen to read? The Green Mile isn't a revelatory masterpiece, no, but that's not the point of it either. Alternately warm, touching, funny, and at times even horrifying, The Green Mile is an emotionally affecting fable littered with a slew of terrific, memorable performances, and it demands to be experienced at least once. Highly Recommended.

Though most review sites have lavished this Blu-ray release of The Green Mile with seemingly endless praise, I have to admit that my reaction looks to be more mixed than most. When the camera closes in fairly tightly, the clarity and striking detail ensure that there's not the faintest glimmer of doubt that this is a high definition release. Detail has a tendency to fade away in wider shots, however, and the rendering of fine textures varies anywhere from breathtaking to wholly underwhelming. The screenshots scattered throughout this review exaggerate this more than they should, but the image is a touch softer than average overall. Contrast seems somewhat muddy to me at times as well. For a film lensed only ten years ago, I'm also surprised by just how much the image degrades whenever there's a fade, though that certainly shouldn't be considered any sort of flaw specific to this Blu-ray disc. Part of me wonders if this was once a first-rate transfer whose seams are starting to show with age, although soft lighting is mentioned in passing in the feature-length documentary on this disc, so perhaps all of this dates back to the original photography. Its robust, stylized palette is inarguably an aesthetic choice, of course, bathing the screen in a warm, nostalgic glow that's been reproduced wonderfully on Blu-ray. The Green Mile frequently does look terrific in high definition, and it's certain to be a more-than-worthy upgrade over the DVD release, but I can't muster quite the same unrestrained enthusiasm that most every other review site has shown for this disc.

The VC-1 encode for this three hour film spans both layers of this BD-50 disc, and the mattes have been opened up slightly to reveal an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

The performance-driven nature of The Green Mile doesn't lend itself to a snarling, overwhelmingly aggressive sound design, but considering its low-key approach, this 16-bit, six-channel Dolby TrueHD soundtrack leaves little room for complaint. The film's dialogue is consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, and it's never once dominated in the mix by the score or sound effects. The bulk of the action is rooted across the front channels, and stereo separation does tend to be rather strong, particularly as the doors to the cells slide open. The surrounds are predominantly reserved for light atmosphere, such as rainfall as well as the rattling chains and swinging pickaxes of a chain gang. The mix is at its most incendiary when the death sentences are being carried out, bringing the subwoofer roaring to life as sparks attack from every direction. The aftereffects of John Coffey's gift also take advantage of the many channels at its fingertips. This may not be a gimmicky or particularly flashy soundtrack, but it complements the material flawlessly.

The Green Mile also features Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese along with a stereo track in Turkish. The sprawling selection of subtitles offers a choice of seventeen (!) different streams.

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The Shawshank Redemption before it, The Green Mile comes packaged in a digibook. The book opens with a reasonably lengthy introduction touching on the backstory, themes, and characters, and this is followed by a set of key cast/crew bios and a page of trivia. Finally, an essay on the dominance of characterization in Frank Darabont's three adaptations of King's work closes out the text. There's a slight metallic sheen to the cover of the digibook, and needless to say, numerous promotional and production stills are featured throughout its 34 pages.

As for the extras on the disc itself:
  • Miracles and Mystery: Creating The Green Mile (103 min.; SD): Easily the highlight of this Blu-ray disc is its feature-length documentary. This six-part retrospective features all of the key cast members and a diverse selection of the talent that toiled behind-the-scenes, and the late Michael Jeter is still represented through a series of archival interviews.

    The first segment, "Stephen King: Storyteller", explores King's strengths as a cinematic, character-driven writer who transcends the traditional genre trappings. A slew of critics and fellow writers discuss the enduring appeal of his work and what makes it so readily translated to film. "Storyteller" uses King's entire career as a canvas but does touch on The Green Mile in particular, from the serial novel concept to distinguishing itself from The Shawshank Redemption. "The Art of Adaptation" is anchored almost entirely around Frank Darabont describing the translation of Stephen King's series of novels into a screenplay. Following a story about hearing a 30 second recap of the concept over the phone, Darabont delves at length into his writing process and the philosophy behind a proper adaptation.

    "Acting on the Mile" focuses on the cast and their performances in a film that is described as more closely resembling a theatrical production. Among the highlights here are the resculpting of Michael Clarke Duncan into an Oscar-calibre actor, the camaraderie on the set, and a prank that was pulled during one of the film's most intensely emotional sequences. Quite a bit of conversation is directed at the powerful first table read, and footage from that is offered here as well. "Designing the Mile" shifts gears into shaping the look of the film, directing most of its attention towards set design but also touching on costume design and the cinematography. Scouting a slew of different prisons, designing Ol' Sparky as a composite of a number of different electric chairs, and landing on just the perfect faded lime shade for the green mile are a few of its more central topics.

    "The Magic of the Mile" explores the practical and digital effects behind The Green Mile, including quite a few 'invisible' ones so terrifically executed that they don't look like effects at all. This segment of the documentary looks at the aging makeup for Tom Hanks that ultimately went unused, making the already towering Michael Clarke Duncan appear some nine additional inches taller, rigging an elaborate animatronic dummy for the electric chair, and a peek at the many different passes for the aftereffect of Coffey's power. It even pulls back the veil and reveals just how a skittering mouse was stomped to death in one seamless shot. Finally, "The Tail of Mr. Jingles" delves into the dozens of mice custom-bred and trained to bring Mr. Jingles to life. The cast and crew describe what it was like to work with all of these critters, including the dedication of one unit to shooting little else but Mr. Jingle footage and just how his trick with the spool was pulled off.

    Even with a runtime that approaches two hours in length, there's more ground still that this documentary could've tread, such as editing, the score, and the film's eventual marketing and release. Still, Miracles and Mystery is a startlingly thorough look at the making of The Green Mile, and it's required viewing for anyone buying or renting this Blu-ray disc.

  • Audio Commentary: Recorded over sessions spanning five months, writer/director Frank Darabont offers a personable, engaging audio commentary, having no difficulty whatsoever maintaining momentum throughout The Green Mile's daunting three hour runtime. Darabont does a terrific job balancing technical notes about the cinematography and often invisible visual effects work with a slew of candid stories: debunking "Entertainment Weekly"'s claims of a tantrum that led up to a doghouse being tossed around and unexpectedly running into the legendary John Frankenheimer while scouting for The Shawshank Redemption, to name two. Darabont speaks at length about his writing process, takes care to explain why he believes the likes of composer Thomas Newman and the remarkably generous Tom Hanks deserve such extensive praise, and touches on why he was so eager to incorporate the 1935 musical Top Hat in particular into this fairy tale of a film. He's quick to acknowledge what a collaborative medium film is, not content to just explore some of the key roles of certain crew members but even phoning several of them up mid-commentary to clarify a few points.

    There is unavoidably quite a bit of overlap with the feature-length documentary elsewhere on this Blu-ray disc, but some of these same stories are offered in much more detail here, most memorably Darabont swooping into the remote
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    location for The Shining miniseries for a conversation with Stephen King. This is a first-rate commentary track, although the inclusion of the feature-length documentary Miracles and Mystery does mean that it's not the absolutely required listen it would've been otherwise.

  • Walking the Mile: The Making of The Green Mile (25 min.; SD): This vintage behind-the-scenes featurette seems somewhat superfluous following nearly five hours of other extras. "Walking the Mile" is passable but is certainly inessential by comparison. The now-familiar story of how Frank Darabont first learned about the germ of an idea, the joys and challenges in lining up a cast, the camaraderie on the set, and a surprise visit by Stephen King on his birthday of all days are among the topics featured here. As its nearly half-hour runtime suggests, "Walking the Mile" is more substantial than most overly promotional making-of featurettes, but it still seems somewhat light and cursory, especially when placed alongside the other extras in this set.

  • Michael Clarke Duncan's Screen Test (8 min.; SD): It's mentioned several times throughout this special edition just how revelatory Michael Clarke Duncan's filmed screen test proved to be, and this footage -- capturing the final moments leading up to the climax -- documents just how Duncan deservedly earned the role of John Coffey.

  • Tom Hanks' Makeup Tests (6 min.; SD): Frank Darabont at one point was mulling over Tom Hanks playing a considerably older version of himself for The Green Mile's framing story, and both sets of makeup tests -- one by Rick Baker and another by KNB's Greg Nicotero -- are featured here with Hanks running through one of the earliest scenes in the film.

  • Deleted Scenes (4 min.; SD): It's mentioned in several places throughout this disc that an exhaustive search spanning months was undertaken to dig up these deleted scenes. In the first, we see Bitterbuck reunite with his family shortly before he'd have to trudge his way down the green mile. The second features another touching sequence between John and Paul leading up to the final moments of the film. These two short scenes are accompanied by optional commentary by Frank Darabont, who touches on both the extensive effort that went into relocating this footage as well as explaining why the two scenes were removed during editing.

  • The Teaser Trailer: A Case Study (5 min.; SD): One of the more intriguingly offbeat extras I've stumbled upon recently, "The Teaser Trailer" delves into how Frank Darabont initially wanted to release a teaser clarifying to the audience that The Green Mile wouldn't be just another film about life behind bars. The meticulously storyboarded trailer was anchored entirely around tight shots of Mr. Jingles skittering across a backdrop that wouldn't be immediately clear. As artfully crafted as the finished product would prove to be...well, there's a reason it never made it into circulation, and every step from concept to canning is addressed here.

  • Teaser Trailer (2 min.; SD): ...and it's followed, appropriately enough, by this unused teaser trailer, presented here -- "giant, hairy rat" and all -- in its entirety.

  • Theatrical Trailer (2 min.; SD): The full-length trailer rounds out the extras.

The Final Word
The Green Mile is an enthralling mix of fantasy and gritty reality, and its characters and spectacular performances are so engaging that it feels as if this three hour movie runs the tiniest fraction of that length. I wouldn't consider it to be quite the classic that The Shawshank Redemption immediately cemented itself as, no, but it's a terrific, touching film in its own right that's certainly worth experiencing at least once. While I myself am not nearly as bowled over by the high definition presentation on this Blu-ray disc as seemingly everyone else the world over appears to be, there's no denying that The Green Mile looks wonderful in HD regardless, and this release is bolstered further by an effective lossless soundtrack and many hours of extras. Highly Recommended.
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