johnlink ranks THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)

When you hit a milestone like your 400th ranking, you like to do something big. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is one of my absolute favorites, and its a shame I’ve gone so long without having seen it. For what it’s worth, this is the movie which currently sits at number one on IMDB’s list of the Top 250 Movies of All-Time. Oh, and there will be SPOILERS BELOW. I’m even going to talk about the very last moment of the film. So do yourself a favor and watch it before reading.

I watched THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) on 6.21.12. I have probably watched this a dozen times, though this was my first viewing in five or six years.

This is a film which had a modest beginning. It is based on a novella by Stephen King, from the same collection which sourced the films STAND BY ME and APT PUPIL. The writer/director Frank Darabont had never directed a theatrical feature, and the highlights of his screenwriting credits were THE BLOB remake, THE FLY II, and the third NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movie. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman were both solid actors, but neither were major stars. Prison stories weren’t box office boons. And even the title was pretty weak. People must have thought “What the hell is a Shawshank?” Though that would be much better than the 21st century movie-going audience which would more likely be asking “What does Redemption mean?”

Indeed, the movie hit theaters with a clunk. The film grossed only $28 million in the states, though it did garner seven Oscar nominations, with Morgan Freeman earning a Best Actor nom, alongside nods for editing, cinematography, music, script, sound, and Best Picture. It won none. It hit VHS, and it grew, and grew, and grew. People wanted to show it to their friends. Viewers wondered how they missed this film in theaters, or how they had never heard of it. It did amazing business in the purchase and rental market. People loved this movie. And they still love this movie, if IMDB’s top movies list is any indicator.

Quite simply, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is one of the great films in the history of the cinema. It’s not merely that it is a heartwarming story in spite of the dark depths to which it sinks. It’s not just the spectacular acting or the solid behind-the-camera work. And it is not simply the brilliant script. All of those are major factors. SHAWSHANK just has all the intangibles which make you want to love a film, and to love film as a medium.

It is easy to forget that this involves a sneaky mystery. The escape at the end was a revelation upon first viewing. Having seen this movie so many times you remember that this is an escape film, and you enjoy the little clues which you may have missed. The joke about how ineffective the rock hammer would be as an escape tool. The bit about the warden (Bob Gunton) handing Andy (Robbins) the Bible and claiming that ‘salvation lies within’. Andy’s perturbed reaction when Red (Freeman) tells him it will take weeks to sneak in Rita Hayworth. So much of the film is about desperation, friendship, and hope. It becomes easy to forget that most prison movies eventually end with an escape, or an attempted escape. Subsequent viewings of this film allow for evolving appreciation of what it holds. I think of this less as a narrative prison film and more as a lesson on perseverance.

The script for SHAWSHANK is brilliant in its ability to transcend clichés. One big no-no in script writing? Lots of narration. Darabont worked around that by having the supporting character Red, in a non-omniscient manner, talking about the film’s main subject Andy. Also, the narration itself is downright poetic while making observations: “The first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing shit they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell, and those bars slam home, that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”

Another thing to avoid? Giant and confusing jumps in time. SHAWSHANK spans roughly twenty years, sometimes jumping half a decade wordlessly. At times this works against it (all of the hardship from Andy’s two months in solitary has to be inferred by how he has changed mentally from before to after, we get very little time with him). However, in a prison story its somewhat of a necessary evil to span a great time period and, indeed, it is part of the thematic thrust that time is a precious commodity. Aiding in these transitions, the characters make-up is amazing. We never get a sudden jump in age, nothing ever feels forced. But when you look at pictures from when they are young and when they are older, you can’t help but see the way time (and Shawshank) has eroded their youth.

The script is very smart. It replaces one brutally physical villain, Boggs, with the more cerebral warden half way through the film. The warden, and his iron-fist/head-guard Heywood, are scarier in that their motives are less apparent. They always have their own best interests in mind, but can absolutely be allies for Andy at key moments. While their brutality and amorality are the reason Andy must ultimately flee, he unquestionably wouldn’t have made it as far as he did without them.

Beyond the structure there is just so much to quote from this film. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” The Alexandre Dumb Ass bit. Red’s final speech to the parole board.  Andy explaining “funny thing is – on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” And plenty more. This is just all such gold. The dialogue is snappier than you’d expect from this sort of character-driven piece.

The behind the camera work is similarly impressive. The cinematography is understated but wonderful. So much is constricted (especially when Andy faces the Sisters), yet the scope grows when the goal is to portray freedom. The two most notable examples are the wide shot of all the prisoners listening to Mozart and the famous rain scene when Andy emerges from the sewage pipe.

The music is also similarly effective in a less than showy way. Thomas Newman’s score works the edges of our consciousness without trying to bowl us over the way John Williams does (and please don’t take that as a knock on John Williams).

And the end. Oh the end. Stephen King ends his novella with Red’s words about hope, about hoping to find Andy. We never get the payoff. In the film we get to see Red walk towards Andy who emerges from working that boat he always wanted. It is entirely satisfying. This isn’t the only time Darabont would tweak the ending of King’s work, doing the same to the end of THE MIST (for a much more melancholy result).

I just adore the friendship Red and Andy develop. It is one of the very best pairings on film. Up there with Butch and Sundance, or Pitt and Clooney, or Bogie and Bacall. In the course of two plus hours Andy and Red start a friendship, nurture it through two decades, and ultimately find their redemption. For Andy, that manifests as a chance to live a life stolen by bad luck. For Red that is an opportunity to rediscover hope, perhaps blow more than just one solitary note on that harmonica, and come to peace with a life derailed too soon.

I wish it hadn’t taken me 400 rankings to return to Shawshank Prison. However, having considered so many films over the past four years and then revisiting this familiar warm blanket has allowed some perspective. This is an all time classic film. It will continue to stand right there with anything else you want to put up against it for decades (at least). And in an increasingly cynical world, I find that an amazing comfort.





This ties it with THE USUAL SUSPECTS and CASABLANCA as the only movies to receive an overall score of 9.75.

~ by johnlink00 on June 22, 2012.

3 Responses to “johnlink ranks THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)”

  1. […] THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) […]

  2. […] The Shawshank Redemption […]

  3. […] only THE USUAL SUSPECTS had ever hit an overall score of 9.75 (nothing has ever hit 10). This year, SHAWSHANK, THE INSIDER, and CASABLANCA all hit the 9.75 […]

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