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If Frank Darabont has carved out the smallest cinematic niche in the world by directing weirdly uplifting Stephen King-penned black-guy/white-guy period prison dramas, at least he knows his strength. Like the much-admired Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile studies the workings of humanity in a context in which humanity is most brutalized, and emerges with the sigils of dignity and faith intact. It’s the exercise of a true genre writer, a member of a cabal driven as much by a need to impose justice on the ant-scramblings of mankind as a desire to shock audiences out of their pants. On the Louisiana death row known as the Green Mile (for the industrial paint on the floor), justice is rough and belated, and a series of paybacks and turns of luck is alternately gruesome and miraculous.

It is Darabont’s peculiar gift that he knows just how to process King’s worst instincts—prudish sentimentalism and gleefully baroque blood lust, both manufactured responses to the human condition already conventionalized by the genre form—to make a serenely implausible sort of emotional sense. The Green Mile unfolds at such a leisurely pace—it has the feel of a magnificently crafted three-night TV special—and is filled with so many easygoing quotidian details that it defies refuting, despite being both sentimental and gruesome.

The film opens with the first half of a wraparound segment that is confusing though intriguing: An old man (played, thank goodness, not by Tom Hanks in a putty mask, but by Dabbs Greer) living out his days at a scenic Southern retirement home goes about some strange business. He makes daily sneaks to a cabin in the woods and runs from the TV room in agitation when Top Hat comes on. For those who have not read the books (or those who have; Darabont fudges the details), The Green Mile seems to set out to answer the question: Why can’t this old man watch an Astaire-Rogers movie?

It takes three-some hours to find out, but it’s worth the investment. As a younger man, Paul Edgecombe (now Tom Hanks in his own face, although it’s the size of a Macy’s parade balloon and his neck has more rings than Saturn) was the superintendent of E Block, a pint-sized death row at the Cold Mountain Penitentiary. Things are pretty slow down there, so it’s a big day when E Block receives a new resident, massive 7-foot gentle giant John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), who comes with suspiciously symbolic initials, the charge of having raped and murdered two little girls, and some uneasy racial baggage even Darabont can’t direct his way out of.

Coffey’s size intimidates the regular guys who patrol E Block—respectful Edgecombe and his trusty deputies (David Morse and Barry Pepper). The weaselly little sadist Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), working on the Mile thanks to family connections, savors the chance to taunt and humiliate the prisoners, especially the one who could crush him like a bug if they were both on the outside. But Coffey proves to be harmless, at least behind bars—his first request is for a night light. It doesn’t take a lifetime of movie watching to know that this man did not commit the crime he is to die for.

From here the ship of fools sails on; people in confinement and those thrown into close contact reveal themselves through their behavior in these stressful, stultifying conditions. The way each of them approaches the appearance of a jailhouse mouse, dubbed Mr. Jingles, indicates who they are. They either feed it, amuse themselves with experiments gauging its courage, or try to trap it; bad Percy wants to squish it. Finally, Mr. Jingles moves in with the agitated Cajun prisoner Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter), and the two put together a little circus full of mouse tricks. The loathsome redneck who fancies himself a modern-day Billy the Kid (Sam Rockwell) has all kinds of plans for his new circle, most of them disgusting and/or psychotic.

But the Mile’s grim purpose is not forgotten for long—periodically, the staffers visit Old Sparky, tuning it up and putting on mock executions with the help of an obnoxious janitor (Harry Dean Stanton), who plays the role of the doomed with bored fervor. One by one, the holding cells empty out by real executions; each is shown from the prisoner’s last look at his cell to the coroner’s pulling a sheet over the corpse’s eyes. One, deliberately mishandled, is detailed at sickening length, with visitors vomiting and fleeing while the panicked prison guards call for order.

In between the executions and mouseplay, the terror of death and pain also stalks nonprisoners—Edgecombe suffers from a debilitating urinary tract infection, and the warden’s wife is dying from a brain tumor. King’s vision of humanity is vast, ranging from do-right men on the staff to the pointless waste of meat (Billy the Kid) to the admitted criminal who still deserves better than his fate (Delacroix) to the enigmatic figure of salvation. John Coffey, who has a slow brain, boasts no book-learning, and can’t see the point of his existence, has the miraculous power to heal. He wrenches the disease out of Edgecombe’s genitals and lets fly the embodiment of physical evil—a swarm of black mites—from his mouth. Intrigued by this power, Edgecombe talks over Coffey’s case with a lawyer (Gary Sinise—told you this should have been a TV movie), convinced that Coffey’s statement upon incarceration—”I tried to take it back, but it was too late” he said of the little girls he was caught cradling—clears him of the crime.

But Edgecombe finds it hard to convince anyone of the miracles taking place in this unlikely spot, and the slightly psychic, certainly redemptive J.C. is doomed—or gifted—to take on the physical sins of humanity on his way to destruction. King squirms out of this blatantly Christian grid of meaning by imposing a desire for martyrdom on Coffey—he wants to die. “It’s best,” he says, to go to the chair rather than try to prove his innocence. There’s something discomfiting about disposing of the big dumb harmless black guy once he’s brought absolution to the good white folk and grotesque punishment to the bad.

Still, Duncan makes Coffey a figure of moving resonance—generous and fearless in the face of the unknown, wisely atremble at the perfidies of mankind. (His is one magnificent performance among many here, notably Hutchison’s and Bonnie Hunt’s as Edgecombe’s wife.) The Green Mile expands on some of King’s favorite themes—the transmission of truth through touch, which was the theme of his revisionist political fantasy, The Dead Zone (also an excellent film); and our childlike longing for power over death, always granted with horrific consequences. But he’s no longer concerned merely with resurrecting monster kitties; now he asks what put us here in the first place, and whom we should trust when it’s all over. Through Darabont’s confident, leisurely direction and eye for the mundane beauty of ugly things, The Green Mile offers mature, ambivalent answers—the consequences of holding hands with the great spirit are as horrible or wonderful as you believe your life to be. CP