American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"We think of this place like an intensive care ward of a hospital." So says Paul Edgecomb, who is in charge of Death Row in a Louisiana penitentiary during the Depression. Paul (Tom Hanks) is a nice man, probably nicer than your average Louisiana Death Row guard, and his staff is competent and humane--all except for the loathsome Percy, whose aunt is married to the governor, and who could have any state job he wants, but likes it here because "he wants to see one cook up close." One day a new prisoner arrives. He is a gigantic black man, framed by the low-angle camera to loom over the guards and duck under doorways. This is John Coffey ("like the drink, only not spelled the same"), and he has been convicted of molesting and killing two little white girls. From the start it is clear he is not what he seems. He is afraid of the dark, for one thing. He is straightforward in shaking Paul's hand--not like a man with anything to be ashamed of.
This is not a good summer for Paul. He is suffering from a painful infection and suffering, too, because Percy (Doug Hutchison) is like an infection in the ward: "The man is mean, careless and stupid--that's a bad combination in a place like this." Paul sees his duty as regulating a calm and decent atmosphere in which men prepare to die.
"The Green Mile" (so-called because this Death Row has a green floor) is based on a novel by Stephen King, and has been written and directed by Frank Darabont. It is Darabont's first film since the great "The Shawshank Redemption" in 1994. That, too, was based on a King prison story, but this one is very different. It involves the supernatural, for one thing--in a spiritual, not creepy, way.
Both movies center on relationships between a white man and a black man. In "Shawshank" the black man was the witness to a white man's dogged determination, and here the black man's function is to absorb the pain of whites--to redeem and forgive them. By the end, when he is asked to forgive them for sending him to the electric chair, the story has so well prepared us that the key scenes play like drama, not metaphor, and that is not an easy thing to achieve.