The Green Mile (1999)

green1The Green Mile (Blu-ray)

Sometimes, looking back on the things I’ve watched, the connections seem obviously apparent. A few weeks ago I watched the first season of Mr Robot, a series that owes much (some would say too much) to the film Fight Club. So having had that film on a blu-ray sitting unwatched on a shelf for a number of years it seemed the perfect time to finally load it up and watch it again. Even while watching that film it seemed inevitable that I would then turn to another David Fincher film, his masterpiece Se7en.

Over the years I’ve bought films on Blu-ray (upgrading from VHS or DVD copies) usually because I’ve caught them on sales, pretty cheap, and put them on the shelf to watch when I’ve got chance, and they sit there for years while I spend my available time watching new films or films I’ve not seen before,

It is nice to rewatch some of my favourite films- as I have said before, it offers some manner of perspective when you watch ‘great’ or favourite films and compare them to current, ‘new’ films. And sometimes having watched some new films that turned out pretty bad (in this case, In The Heart of the Sea and Stoker) it is good to turn to something more… reliable.  So that’s why I watched my Blu-ray copy of The Shawshank Redemption the other night.

The connection between Shawshank and The Green Mile is clear and my turning to that film next seems inevitable. It is unfair though to directly compare The Green Mile to Shawshank, even though both are ‘prison’ films and both are period films, and both are adult fables. And of course both were written and directed by Frank Darabont.

To get the obvious out of the way, The Green Mile is no Shawshank– it is a lesser film, certainly. It is not a bad film, but The Green Mile is less grounded in reality than Shawshank, and suffers for it- it’s a supernatural film, and is therefore something more of a traditional Stephen King story. Perhaps because of this, it’s more difficult to invest oneself in- I can see the appeal of re-watching Shawshank as nauseam  (as some fans do) as there is much to get out of it; the friendship, humor and reward of perseverance demonstrated in it. The Green Mile though is actually a rather bleaker tale and most importantly doesn’t have a cathartic moment at the end.

Indeed, rewatching it again, I was taken aback by just how bleak it is- yes there is some humour, but there is a lot of pain and misery, as you might expect with characters on the brink of death both in prison and without. Hope runs throughout Shawshank, hidden though it may be at times, and the goodness of basic humanity is evident too- but there is little hope in The Green Mile, only the certainty death, and even miracles are rewarded with the Electric Chair. Even when death is uncertain, as we find protagonist Paul Edgecomb at the end of the film living an extended lifespan of perhaps even centuries, that uncertainty is almost a curse, and death something possibly that would be welcomed. Hardly as life-affirming a message as Shawshank was blessed with.

I do find myself wondering whether Stephen King ever considered writing a sequel to The Green Mile, giving Edgecomb another adventure/life-changing experience, perhaps as he nears his own end. Perhaps there might be a more life-affirming message there, perhaps some commentary on age and life, and perhaps a purpose for him as yet undisclosed in The Green Mile. There are still mysteries- just who was John Coffey, and where did he come from, how did he get his strange powers? In a way those mysteries (who was Coffey, what will become of Edgecomb) are a strength of The Green Mile, but they do handicap any sense of closure or completion at the end of the film. I’ve read of Shawshank being like a comfort blanket for viewers, a positive experience for all its own drama and darkness, but this is something that cannot be said of The Green Mile. People walked out of the cinema after Shawshank feeling uplifted, but when I came out of The Green Mile I remember feeling rather troubled.

The Green Mile ends with the miracle dead, and our hero having lost everyone that was ever of value to him, the world moving on in ignorance. No, The Green Mile is not a feel-good film.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

shaw1The Shawshank Redemption (Blu-ray)

For what it’s worth, I’ll start this by just pointing out that I saw The Shawshank Redemption at the cinema back on its release in 1994. I don’t know why I feel the need to point that out, but this film was such a ‘sleeper’ hit, only becoming popular on home video really, that it feels pertinent to mention that when there is so little ‘new’ to add about the film, as so much has since been written about it. It is now on so many people’s Top Ten lists it is easy to forget that the film took years to gain its audience and popularity.

I don’t think it is any accident that it reminds me so much of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, another perennial favourite that was ignored on its original release. Both films are life-affirming, and I think it’s fair to say that both films failed to get initial success because they sort of suggest they are going to be one thing, and then turn into something else. Frank Capra’s film seems overly sweet and simple at the start but becomes rather dark, and Frank Darabont’s film starts as if it is just another prison flick, when it becomes something more. And yes, both films champion the human spirit and having faith in oneself and in others, and both films are uplifting cathartic experiences.

Returning to the film after a number of years, and watching it for the first time on blu-ray, I was pleasantly surprised that it really is as good as I remembered. Sometimes films fade or disappoint when revisited after a space of time. Shawshank remains as vital and sincere as it ever was. The script is excellent, the cast engaging, the music score perfect, the direction remarkably restrained of any artifice or stylistic heavy-handedness. The film tells its story at a leisurely pace (over something like two and a half hours) but it never feels long. It feels just right, and the eventual finale is note-perfect and thoroughly deserved. There is, afterall, a simple reason why it is on so many people’s Top Ten lists. It is simply a damn fine film.