Shawshank Redemption, The (1994)
Release Date: October 14th, 1994 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Frank Darabont Actors: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows, James Whitmore, Mark Rolston, Larry Brandenburg
masterful examination of perseverance, justice, and friendship, “The Shawshank Redemption” is a spectacular achievement for director Frank Darabont, who adapted the story from horror author auteur, Stephen King. With outstanding performances, an ingeniously twisting plot, Rita Hayworth, and karma as rarely witnessed on the big screen, “The Shawshank Redemption” is a nearly flawless film, intent on withstanding the test of time. Oftentimes incorrectly assumed to be depressing as opposed to uplifting (due to the prison violence and sporadic iniquities akin to those in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), it is, in actuality, a magnificently hopeful, inspiring work of art.
In 1947, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is sent to Shawshank Prison to serve two life sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover. Innocent (as is everyone at Shawshank), the ex-banker prepares for a life very different from any he’s ever known. Also at the institution is Red (Morgan Freeman), a comradely lifer who has been there so long he knows that no life can exist for him beyond the stone walls. The two form an unlikely bond and an unbreakable friendship that gets them through good and bad times at the penitentiary over the course of two decades.
Andy soon begins to help the crooked warden with his banking and with wrongfully hoarding funds by skimming off prison programs, as well as aiding all of the guards with taxes and savings accounts for their children. In return, he is given command over the prison library and is looked after by the sentries to prevent mistreatment. When young Tommy (Gil Bellows) is brought to the prison, telling tales of a convict who claimed to have killed Dufresne’s wife, Andy becomes anxious to rid himself of his austere confines.
The prison serves as a strictly defined way of life for convicts who are so institutionalized by routine that they are unable to readapt to normal existence. For some, including Brooks (James Whitmore), who served 50 years behind Shawshank’s walls, they are unable to function outside of the quotidian habits in which they’ve engrained themselves. All they know is the lockup, and once loosed, they simply want to return “home.” These men provide a stark contrast to Andy, who isn’t accustomed to such limited freedoms and yearns for exoneration. But innocence doesn’t have much significance – or power – once the system has taken control.
“Put your trust in the Lord. Your ass belongs to me,” exclaims the warden, Mr. Norton (Bob Gunton). The film contains many memorable roles, recognizable character actors at every turn, and phenomenal performances by the entire cast. Morgan Freeman narrates as Red, the sardonic and patient man who can get just about anything for other prisoners, running a smuggling business for small items of interest. For Andy, he requisitions a rock hammer for carving chess pieces, and posters of Rita Hayworth (after which the original Stephen King short story was named), Marilyn Monroe, and finally Raquel Welch. Andy himself appears stiffly conventional at first, carefully and awkwardly adapting to his new surroundings. Robbins is a delight, providing an initially moral compass and an intelligent survivor for viewers to rally behind. His considerable hardships include slowly earning the respect of other inmates and the guards, dealing with vicious gangs of rapists, surviving weeks in “the hole,” and conforming to the warden’s corrupt money scams. “I had to come to prison to be a crook,” Andy quickly realizes.
What makes “The Shawshank Redemption” work so well, despite a lengthy running time (which turned off many early viewers), is the amazing attention to detail and the engrossingly humanistic story. The trick to staying sane while incarcerated is to keep the mind occupied – and “Shawshank” does just that for the audience, through wondrous music (by Thomas Newman), the dangerous drug of hope, tear-jerking moments of serenity, shocking violence, thought-provoking scenes of wayward camaraderie, and curiosity over colorfully developed characters. Most films appeal to specific demographics, but “Shawshank” manages to connect with a vast array of audiences on one level or another, keeping this universally appealing drama regularly placing on lists of the greatest films of all time – even though it was not highly regarded by critics or moviegoers upon its initial release in 1994. A brilliantly crafted masterwork, “The Shawshank Redemption” would go on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, and remains a sensational journey of redemption and solace through epically cinematic acts of common human decency.
– Mike Massie