Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stephen King Month: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

By a certain measurement, The Shawshank Redemption is the greatest movie ever made. If you believe the masses who vote over at the Internet Movie Database, Shawshank tops The Godfather, Schindler's List, all of the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies and various other classics and fanboy favorites. Of course, IMDb's list is always in flux, but Shawshank steadily maintains a place at or near the top, despite being a box-office failure in 1994 and left out of most academic or critical assessments of the best films (even just American films) of all time.

How did this happen? Part of it seems to come down to the deal that TNT got on the movie, which made it incredibly cheap for the channel to play it far more often than other licensed programs. The studio also flooded the home-video market after Shawshank tanked in theaters, and the movie found a much more receptive audience among people at home. It does sort of sneak up on you, and I can definitely imagine people passing it by on TV one afternoon, curiously stopping to watch a few minutes and getting sucked into the whole thing. Shawshank offers a familiar look at prison life in many ways, but it also turns that downbeat setting into the vehicle for a stirringly inspirational story, one that feels only a little bit manipulative. Unlike writer-director Frank Darabont's second Stephen King adaptation, The Green Mile, Shawshank mostly plays fair with its audience, allowing us to understand exactly how and why Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Ellis "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman) triumphed over a corrupt system out to keep them down.

Of course, Shawshank presents an idealized version of prison life, notwithstanding the occasional beatings. Although Andy is innocent of his wife's murder beyond a shadow of a doubt, everyone else in Shawshank prison presumably committed the crimes they're serving time for, and the movie never bothers to reconcile those violent pasts with the inherently warm and kind personalities of the inmate characters. Only one convict in the entire prison ever treats anyone poorly, and he's the leader of the group known as "the Sisters," violent homosexuals who try and fail to make Andy one of their own. Red qualifies at one point that they're not really homosexuals ("you have to be human first"), but the mild homophobia on display is one of the movie's only sour notes.

Otherwise it's one triumph after another, starting small and moving toward Andy's eventual escape from prison and his reunion with Red on the outside. There are a lot of elements from Shawshank that have since become iconic (Robbins shot from above, his arms outstretched in the rain; "Get busy living or get busy dying"; Freeman's entire narration), and they've stuck with audiences for a reason. Darabont knows how to build emotional moments, and Robbins and Freeman work well together to get just the right kinds of reactions. Robbins plays Andy as quiet but competent, the kind of guy who knows way more than he ever lets on. And although Freeman's character could be a cliche (and has become one in later parodies and imitations), Red almost never feels like a sidekick or plot device. He's friendly but cynical, and his rapport with Andy comes about slowly and naturally. He's as amazed as everyone else when Andy finally escapes, and that disbelief carries over to the audience even if we've seen the movie dozens of times.

Red's demeanor aside, Shawshank is also one of the least cynical movies ever made, and that's not only because it promotes hope and tolerance and the inherent goodness of humanity. It also denies some of the audience instinct for revenge, as Andy declines to exact vengeance on those who wronged him once he gets out of prison. Yes, he arranges for the corrupt prison officials to be indicted (although presumably he didn't plan to have the warden commit suicide), but he never goes after the man who really killed his wife and got away with it, who laughed about Andy's decades in prison for a crime he didn't commit. The cops who wrongfully arrested him, the judge who wrongfully convicted him, the lawyer who improperly defended him -- all are implicitly forgiven as Andy simply heads down to Mexico to start over. Maybe that's the secret of this movie's success -- its message that we are all better people than the worst circumstances in which we may find ourselves, and that we can forgive those who wrong us and start anew, free from any burden of guilt or anger that we may have harbored in our souls.

How far to Castle Rock: Although Shawshank is Maine's most notorious prison, none of the inmates hail from Castle Rock.

1 comment:

dude the cleaner said...

Great film one of the best of our time I still enjoy it from time to time.