Written by Stephen King and Frank Darabont
Directed by Frank Darabont
The first time I ever watched Shawshank Redemption came about quite by accident. It is one of those films I’d heard about for quite some time, but never got around to seeing. This was the days before movies were available on-demand. It wasn’t like I had anything against the film, I just never had come across it on television when I was in the mood for a film, nor had it ever popped into my mind when I went to our local Blockbuster. One of the reasons I like Netflix so much is that I can just load my queue up with movies I know I want to see, and every now and then I get to see a movie like this: one where I wonder why I never viewed it before now.
If you’ve never seen this film or know little about it, it is both a typical prison movie and very atypical at the same time. While the film seems to center on the story of a man unjustly sent to prison for the murder of his wife and her lover, it is actually more the story of the prisoners themselves and how ill-prepared they are for being turned loose on society after many years behind bars. It is also the story of a great friendship that might not have existed were it not for those prison walls.
Andy DuFresne (Tim Robbins) is sentenced to two back-to-back life sentences for slaying his wife and her lover. He goes to Shawshank Prison where he meets Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman). Red can get anyone just about anything in the prison. Andy asks him to get him a rock hammer. A friendship begins.
Andy is assigned to be the librarian’s (James Whitmore) assistant, but soon he is consulting with the guards about financial matters. He is also helping the warden launder the money he skims off of various “prison projects”.
A young punk, Tommy (Gil Bellows), comes in who’s done a lot of time across New England. When he hears Andy’s story, he tells him about an inmate he was with who confessed to the actual murder of his wife and her lover.
The warden (Bob Gunton) doesn’t want the good times to end. He sends Andy off to solitary for two months while he arranges for the murder of Tommy “while trying to escape”.
It’s a turning point for Andy. He accepted his bad turn and fate before then. Now, his tone changes. His friends among the inmates worry that he’s suicidal.
The acting in this film is first-rate all around. Tim Robbins gives what I believe is the best performance of his career as Andy. On the surface, it seemed that I could see who Andy was and how he was reacting to what was going on around him. As the film built toward its climax, it became apparent that Andy was a multi-dimensional character. What was amazing was that on reflection the performance fit the character. There are times with characters like this that I can’t reconcile the revelations about the character with the way they have behaved through the film. Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense is an example of this to me, as I felt like there should have been more clues all along to his true nature. Tim Robbins’ Andy, however, perfectly fits into the character.
I’d like to say that Morgan Freeman also gives the performance of his career, but I feel that so many of this man’s performances are tremendous performances that to call just one of them his best does a great disservice. His portrayal of the prison handyman who can get anyone just about anything is faultless. Right from the beginning when he is taking bets on who of the new prisoners in Andy’s group will be the first to break, Red comes off as a hardened man. By the end, however, I could see the great heart that lay within that man. Freeman doesn’t convey this by breaking down or making some impassioned speech about the injustices of the prison system. Instead, he is a man who shows little reactions to events which should be fraught with emotion.
There are lots of sub-plots along the way, involving both Andy and Red as they interact with other prisoners as well as the guards and the warden. All serve the purpose of building these characters toward the payoff moment, but do so in a way that didn’t hit me over the head with the facts. I’d actually like to watch it again soon, so I can catch some of the plot nuances I missed the first time through.
It’s too bad that this movie came up against the heavily lauded Forrest Gump for the Best Picture Oscar in 1994. I think this should have easily won over that film. Shawshank Redemption holds up much better on repeated viewings than Gump, which seems to take on a more comic and unrealistic air to me as time goes on.
The DVD contains some extras: Production Stills, Theatrical Trailer, Cast & Crew Biographies, and a list of Awards, but there’s really nothing special here. I would have liked to listen to the movie with a commentary with Robbins and Freeman and possibly others, but it seems that’s not to be had. That’s a shame.
I highly recommend everyone view this film at least once in their lives. It’s not exactly a tear-jerker, but it’s sobering. It’s not depressing, because it does give hope for one’s own brand of justice. Most of all, I liked seeing two people from two entirely different ways of life come together in a true bond of friendship that if we’re lucky comes along once in a lifetime.