The Shawshank Redemption (1994) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, violence and sexual situations
Running Time: 144 min.
Cast: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, Clancy Brown, William Sadler, James Whitmore, GIl Bellows
Director: Frank Darabont
Screenplay: Frank Darabont (based on the story, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" by Stephen King)
Review published September 19, 2003
An unlikely story to turn into a movie, and an unlikely movie that would turn into a contemporary masterpiece, The Shawshank Redemption not only deserved its Best Picture nomination, but it also deserved to win out over Forrest Gump. It's a tour-de-force for writer/director Darabont (The Green Mile, The Majestic), a film so professional in every way, you'd swear that only an acclaimed director with 30 years of experience could have even come close to achieving the heights to which Shawshank attains. The fact that Darabont does so without any flashy camera work or avant garde touches is most impressive. Rather, he employs a more classical style of cinematic storytelling, borrowing many styles from some of the great of cinema, and making them his own, to use as the situation calls for.
Darabont adapts this from the Stephen King short novel, "Rita Hayworth & the Shawshank Redemption," and unlike many adaptations of the prolific writer's work, this one is successful because it transforms the written page into what works best cinematically, which is, after all, the correct way to adapt literature. Tim Robbins (Short Cuts, Tapeheads) plays Andy Dufresne, a successful banker who is found guilty of the murder of his wife and her lover shortly after he has discovered the infidelity. He is sentenced to two life sentences, and summarily shipped off the Shawshank State Prison to spend the remainder of his days. Life is hard for the numbers cruncher who walks with a "silver spoon shoved up his ass," because there's an uncaring warden (Gunton, Patch Adams), a strict head of security (Brown, Highlander), and a gang called the Bull Queers, who make it a regular habit to strip Andy's humanity from him at every opportunity. But there's more than meets the eye with Andy, as they can't kill his spirit, his hope, his dreams, or his talents.
In a film filled with so many strong points, it becomes almost impossible to list everything, so I'll just stick to the main reasons why Shawshank Redemption is the best film of the 1990s. First, there's the aforementioned brilliance of its main auteur, Frank Darabont. Although a relative beginner, Darabont clearly understands how to tell a story, not telegraphing all of the film's main plot points before it's time for us to know them, savoring each surprise until the right time to show us the full story. It would have been very easy to tell this story in a linear mode, but Darabont's patience with the material allows us to not jump too far ahead of the story, creating an atmosphere of mystique that never wears off. Although it's a drama, there is an aura of the fantastic about the story, so that even if some strange coincidences abound, it is well established that extraordinary things can occur in the most unlikely of ways.
Then, there's composer Thomas Newman's (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) gorgeous score, a real masterwork that elevates the film to the heavens with its richness and elegance. It's quite the beautiful piece of music, and unlike many films of this nature, it isn't oversaturated by being utilized in every scene. Newman picks and chooses the right times for the right pieces of music, and allows Shawshank Redemption to gain the profoundness of themes as a result. It's hard to imagine one could improve it.
Lastly, there are the fine performances, with Robbins giving one of his best in a role that requires him to be cold but vulnerable, distant yet caring. Whatever difficulty the role requires must have been greatly influenced by the stellar work by Morgan Freeman (Unforgiven, Chain Reaction) as Red, Andy's friend and mentor in the prison. His performance as the narrator of the film, as well as the main supporting character, could not be better. Red has a strength of mind and soul that others seem to lack, yet he is also human, as apt to fail as any other person in the prison, but his common sense keeps his bacon out of the fire. Although King's original story had Red as an Irishman, Darabont properly goes for what works best cinematically once again, and Freeman is so phenomenal in the role, it's as though he were born to play it.
I could go on further, but I fear I will get down to the terrific job by the second unit director or dolly grip before I'm through, so I'll end it with these. The Shawshank Redemption is brilliant storytelling through and through, with a depth in thematic imagery and symbolism, it transcends being just another prison film. It provides vital inspiration for the heart and nourishment for the soul, letting us know that even amid the most trying of circumstances, hope should never be extinguished. Shawshank lasts two hours and twenty minutes, but its resonance stays with you forever.
©2003 Vince Leo