THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)

  • Director: Frank Darabont
  • Writers: Frank Darabont, based on the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King
  • Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows, and James Whitmore
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#72), 7 Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor – Morgan Freeman, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The Shawshank Redemption made almost no impression at the box office upon its release, at a time in 1994 when Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump, among many others, were also taking up movie screens. A non-horror Stephen King movie and a period prison drama with maybe one line spoken by a woman in its run time, it was very unclear who the audience for this movie actually was. After being considered a box office bomb by its studio, it received a somewhat surprising seven Oscar nominations, followed by a re-release that helped it make its budget back. Subsequently its production company, Castle Rock, was purchased by media magnate Ted Turner, who realized that showings of the movie on his TNT and TBS TV networks garnered consistently high ratings. On TNT, especially, it seemed to play about once a day after a while, and now The Shawshank Redemption is one of America’s best known and loved movies. Critics never quite came around to it, but audiences consistently flock to it. It has occupied the #1 slot in the IMDB user rankings, perhaps the most democratic of the various online ranking systems, since some time in 2008. This is lots and lots of people’s favorite movie.

The movie begins with an accountant named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) being sentenced to life in Shawshank prison in Maine, 1949, for killing his wife and her lover, a crime for which he is apparently innocent. There he makes friends, especially with veteran prisoner Red (Morgan Freeman), who narrates the movie, along with enemies. He gets in good with the warden (Bob Gunton) by doing his taxes and setting up secret bank accounts for him, but after he comes to the warden with evidence of his innocence from a newly arrived prisoner (Gil Bellows), the warden betrays him and makes sure the guy is murdered by another prisoner. The movie’s timing is a little bit vague (as time is in prison, I suppose), but the movie’s climax takes place in 1965. Red is worried that a despairing Andy is going to kill himself, but when everyone rushes to his cell it turns out he has, instead, escaped. He has been digging a hole with a tiny hammer over the course of the decades, covered by a poster Rita Hayworth. The movie’s most famous (and most imitated) scene shows him, with one of the most apologetically bombastic musical score moments in the movies, climbing out of a pipe into pouring rain stretching out his arms, and looking skyward, finally free. Red, inspired by Andy’s example, finally says the right things to the parole board and gets out after 40 years, eventually meeting Andy on a beach in Mexico in the final scene.

I am not one of those people who loves this movie. I think it’s important when approaching it, first of all, to leave behind any notion that this is any kind of realistic depiction of prison life. Yes, Andy does get raped at one point, but most of the prisoners we actually meet are portrayed as good guys. With Andy, the movie gets around its central conundrum by making sure we know he’s innocent. With everyone else, it gets around it by being mostly uninterested in their crimes. “In here, everybody’s innocent,” Freeman famously intones. There’s another popular scene at one point where Andy commandeers the prison PA system to play an opera record, and literally every prisoner stops to listen and gets this look on their face like they’re seeing God for the first time. You wouldn’t have gotten that reaction in a high school, even at this time, much less in an actual prison.

Instead, the whole thing is clearly a metaphor for something, though for what seems to be up to each individual watching it. That is where the movie’s staying power has been over the years, not because everyone loves prison movies. Perhaps we are all spending our lives metaphorically digging out of our own, self-imposed mental prisons. Or perhaps, as numerous academic papers have suggested over the years, there’s some other hidden meaning. Is Andy a Christ figure, Red a worshipper he saves, the warden Satan, and the final beach heaven? A lengthy British Film Institute essay seemed to think so. I don’t actually get the sense that anyone involved actually thought that hard about any of it.

The eventual success of this movie constituted the big break of its director Frank Darabont, to whom Stephen King had once sold the screen rights to his novella for one dollar. Darabont went on to become King’s favorite director, making films of King’s other works The Green Mile and The Mist. He still has the rights to other King books that he says he plans to make in the future. Morgan Freeman, meanwhile, received an Oscar nomination for his performance. It might have been inevitable, but his deep voiced, purposefully profound narration here is likely what established Freeman’s role as America’s current “Voice of God.” These days, if a documentary is narrated by somebody else, it’s because they asked Freeman first and he turned it down. In addition to his narration work he has since played God (at least twice), the President of the United States (at least twice), and Nelson Mandela, not to mention winning an Oscar for his role in Million Dollar Baby. He is one of those actors right now who can basically do whatever he wants, and it’s great.

If you’re a big fan of The Shawshank Redemption, good for you. I think in general I’m mostly immune to being “uplifted,” particularly if the message is “if you work constantly for twenty years without sleep, you too can crawl through what Morgan Freeman calls a ‘river of shit’ to escape from being wrongfully imprisoned.” Perhaps I am being too literal, but… pass? I want to have empathy with characters, so you think that would work for this movie, but actually no one here really rings true for me as a character, they’re either evil cut-outs or saints without flaws, even though pretty much the whole movie is, you know, in prison. As I said, I remain deeply suspicious of the idea that anyone involved thought deep enough about any of this for it to be saying anything coherent. Look, some movies are like Beethoven, others are a Kendrick Lamar album, and some are Taylor Swift trying to show off her artistic side. They are all great and deserve to exist. But I’m not going to listen to them all the same amount.

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